A photomicrograph of the phytochemical lycopene. Image courtesy of Molecular Expressions
Red all about it
Beyond what they do for salads and spaghetti sauce, there’s plenty to lycopene about tomatoes. Indeed, a good part of what makes a tomato so wonderful is that it has plenty of lycopene.
Lycopene is a carotenoid, a 600-member group of colorful organic phytochemicals that give blueberries their blue, grapefruits their pinkish hue and tomatoes their assorted crimson reds. (Carotenoids also provide garlic with its characteristically pungent odor.)
Lycopene is also a proven antioxidant, meaning it inhibits oxidation in other molecules, a process linked to a wide variety of diseases, conditions and ailments. Robust consumption of lycopene in tomatoes (also found in watermelon, grapefruit, guava, rosehip and red chilies) is associated with a significantly reduced risk of prostate cancer, which kills almost 30,000 American men each year. After skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer in American men.
A new study helps explains lycopene’s anti-prostate cancer powers.
Researchers found that the increased presence of lycopene increased levels of enzymes that protect prostate cells from the harmful effects of cancer-causing compounds. Lycopene also altered the cellular pathways involved in prostate cancer development. What remains unknown is whether it’s the lycopene itself that’s fending off cancer or a byproduct of cells metabolizing the compound.
Whichever, go eat a tomato. Eat two.