Lycopene in a nutshell:
Lycopene is a red pigment that protects plants from too much light. In the human body, it is a potent antioxidant, but may also have a role in controlling cholesterol problems, fighting cancer by initiating cells to self-destruct, and helping to prevent hardening of the arteries.
Best source of Lycopene for Juicers
Lycopene can be found in red fruits like tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, watermelon and even red grapefruit (not white grapefruit). You’ll also find it in Papaya, guava and red peppers.
Lycopene is a naturally occurring red pigment found in tomatoes, watermelons, and papayas, but not in strawberries or cherries.
Alternative names: Lycopene; ψ, ψ-carotene.
What Is Lycopene?
Lycopene is one about half a dozen compounds plants create to protect them from the effects of too much light. Lycopene absorbs all the but the longest, red wavelengths of sunlight, so it appears red.
The long lycopene molecule has a very regular structure inside the plant, allowing it to absorb a maximum amount of light. When lycopene is removed from the plant, or it is exposed to heat or light, the molecule twists until it finds a stable form. That's why cooking a fruit or vegetable that contains lycopene actually increases the amount of lycopene available from the food. And because lycopene protects the seed inside a fruit from excessive light, the greatest amount of lycopene is found in the peel. (But don't try to eat inedible peels just to get more lycopene!)
Plants can use lycopene to make beta-carotene, which performs a similar function in the plant. Humans have to get their lycopene and beta-carotene from separate sources.
What Does Lycopene Do in the Human Body?
The human digestive tract has trouble absorbing lycopene in its natural, raw form. Part of the problem is that lycopene is not water-soluble. It has to be mixed with fat in the small intestine to adhere to the receptor cells that can bring it into the bloodstream.
The other problem with the lycopene in raw foods is that in its natural state it is a long, bulky molecule that doesn't mix well with the other particles of digested food in the globules of fat that carry nutrients to receptor sites for entry into the bloodstream. Gently cooking lycopene causes the lycopene molecule to “curl” into a form that can be carried into the bloodstream and transported around the body.
Even if you consume large amounts of lycopene, your hormonal status determines how much lycopene stays in your body. Women of reproductive age are better able to absorb lycopene when their estrogen levels are low and when their progesterone levels are high. The higher a man's testosterone levels, the less lycopene his body can absorb. On the other hand, consuming a large amount of lycopene can lower estrogen levels in women and testosterone levels in men.
Since lycopene is fat-soluble, it tends to accumulate in body fat. Lycopene has a high affinity for belly fat and buttocks fat, but it tends not be stored in the thighs or under the arms. Obese people have less free lycopene in their bloodstreams than people of normal weight.
Lycopene is a strong antioxidant. It is twice as efficient at quenching free radicals of oxygen as beta-carotene, and 10 times as efficient at quenching free radicals of oxygen as the form of vitamin E known as alpha-tocopherol. This makes lycopene very useful in skin care products (although you have to get those products in tubes, not jars, since exposure to the air uses up the antioxidant capacity of the lycopene).
Inside the body, however, scientists believe that lycopene's health protective role is not really due to detoxing free radicals. Researchers now believe that the way lycopene accomplishes its health effects is much more extensive than just fighting free radicals:
- Lycopene interferes with growth signals from estrogen and testosterone. This makes it useful in preventing estrogen-stimulated breast cancer and testosterone-stimulated prostate cancer.
- Lycopene reduces the effects of adhesion factor. This reduces the “stickiness” of the lining of arteries for cholesterol. It also helps keep the lining of the heart thin and flexible.
- Lycopene decreases C-reactive protein, which causes inflammation in the lining of blood vessels and which also plays a part in the growth of blood vessels to cancerous tumors.
- Lycopene has to “hitch a ride” on cholesterol to circulate through the bloodstream, and keeps it from interacting with the linings of blood vessels.
- Lycopene may trigger the process of apoptosis (“cellular suicide”) in certain kinds of cancer cells. The evidence for this is not completely unequivocal, but the majority of the scientific evidence supports this idea.
- Lycopene may induce the formation of detoxification enzymes in the liver that process beta-carotene and vitamin A.
These qualities may make lycopene an important factor in reducing the risk of:
- High cholesterol, more specifically high LDL cholesterol. Lycopene seems to accelerate the recycling of LDL into HDL.
- Hardening of the arteries, by reducing the thickness of artery walls (atherosclerosis). This effect is stronger in men than in women.
- Breast, lung, and uterine cancer, by stopping the proliferation of cancer cells.
- Prostate cancer, by blocking some of the effects of testosterone and another hormone known as insulin-like growth factor 1.
- Insulin resistance, the predisposing factor for type 2 diabetes, by breaking the cycle of increasing insulin production occurring at the same time as increasing insulin resistance, which leads to the “burn out” of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.
Lycopene has also been investigated as part of the treatment of malaria, HIV, ovarian cancer, cancers of the stomach and esophagus, and Alzheimer's disease. It is important to remember that since lycopene works in part by helping the body use other nutrients efficiently, it's never a magic bullet for treating any condition.
Are You at Risk for “Lycopene Deficiency”?
Strictly speaking, lycopene is not a vitamin and there is no such thing as a lycopene deficiency. There are other nutrients that can perform the same function as lycopene, and there are other processes that can initiate detoxification reactions and control hormones. On the other hand, people who eat tomatoes, a good source of lycopene, as infrequently as once a week, are at reduced risk from cancer ranging from prostate cancer to mesothelioma and from hardening of the arteries and heart attacks. A little lycopene can't hurt.
How to Get Lycopene from Food
In the West, we usually associate lycopene with tomatoes, but an Asian vegetable called gac (baby jackfruit) has at least 70 times more lycopene than the better-known vegetable. Gac is a relative of bitter melon that has a spiny exterior and red oily seeds inside. It is used to make the Lunar New Year food xôi gấc in Vietnam and also used to make a kind of fruit juice that most Westerners would describe as “an acquired taste.”
In addition to tomatoes, papaya, and guava, lycopene is also found in pink (but not white) grapefruit, wolfberries, sea buckthorn berries, and rose hips. It tends to be “stuck” in fibers, so pureed or processed fruits and vegetables provide more lycopene in a form the human body can digest. Some representative amounts of lycopene in food include:
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of sun-dried tomatoes contains 45,908 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of canned tomato paste contains 28,767 micrograms of lycopene. (If you are concerned about the plastics used to seal “tin” cans, use tomato paste from a tube.)
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of canned whole tomatoes contains 21,753 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of tomato juice contains 9,036 micrograms of lycopene. (That's about half a V8.)
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of raw guavas contains 5,203 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of raw watermelon contains 4,253 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of pizza (one slice) contains 1,800 to 2,000 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of pink grapefruit contains 1,419 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of sauteed red peppers contains 484 micrograms of lycopene.
- A 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of canned “guava nectar” contains just 18 micrograms of lycopene.
Many canned or processed foods made with tomato sauce contain 1,000 to 2,000 micrograms of lycopene per serving.
A “high” rate of lycopene consumption in most studies of lycopene and disease prevention in the USA is about 14,000 micrograms of lycopene per day. This is equivalent to eating a serving of tomatoes every day. Some studies have found health benefits at the equivalent of eating just one tomato a month. Every little bit helps.
Most lycopene supplements contain between 5 and 20 mg (5,000 and 20,000 micrograms) lycopene in a form that is readily absorbed by the body. If you eat cooked tomato products in any form several times a week or if you drink tomato juice twice a week, you don't need the supplement. If you don't eat your vegetables, the American vegetable drink V8 is a good source of lycopene in a form your body can absorb.
What About Using Lycopene in Disease Treatment?
Lycopene is useful additive to skin care products. For health problems inside the body, however, it is useful for prevention, not treatment.
Lycopenodermia is a condition of red skin caused by excessive consumption of lycopene. It usually takes about 100,000 micrograms (the equivalent six to ten cooked tomatoes) in a single day for the pigment to accumulate in the skin. Lycopenodermia causes no lasting effects and goes away in 3 weeks to 3 months if no more lycopene is consumed.