It's also a powerful antioxidant which may protect against heart disease, support prostate health and reduce sun damage to the skin.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Lycopene is a naturally-occurring antioxidant which may lower the risk of heart disease and protect against skin damage. Some studies suggest it may also support prostate health and improve male fertility.’
What does lycopene do?
Lycopene is a natural antioxidant, which helps to protect cells from the action of free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules). Free radicals can damage cells and are implicated in the development of cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration (loss of central vision) and other age-related illnesses.
Cardiovascular disease (heart and circulatory disease) causes more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK (160,000 a year) and there are more than seven million people living with the condition.
Studies suggest taking a lycopene supplement may support heart health. One review concluded that a lycopene dose of 25mg or more daily was effective in reducing 'bad' LDL cholesterol by 10 per cent, roughly equivalent to the effect of a low-dose statin. The authors of another review of six studies said their analysis suggested a lycopene supplement of 12mg a day or more might reduce systolic blood pressure, particularly in Asians, although larger and more longer term studies were needed.
Lycopene may even help protect skin from UV damage from the sun. A 2016 study by German researchers found that lycopene helped shield the body from harmful UV radiation, and that oral lycopene and lutein supplements may be efficient in blocking sun damage and helping to prevent skin wrinkles.
Sperm and prostate health
There is hope that lycopene could help to improve male fertility. A study published in January 2017 found that its antioxidant properties can increase sperm count. A group of 44 men with poor sperm quality took part in a four-week study in which they consumed high levels of tomato juice. After 12 weeks, they had an increase and improvement in their sperm motility.
Lycopene may also benefit prostate health in men. The prostate is a walnut-shaped gland beneath the bladder. Benign prostate enlargement, where the prostate gland enlarges and causes urinary symptoms is a condition that affects 40 per cent of men over 50 and 75 per cent of men over 70. One study found those who took 15mg of lycopene daily for six months, reported an improvement in urinary symptoms, whereas those who took a placebo said their symptoms got progressively worse.
Getting lycopene from your diet
Lycopene is found in fruits, including tomato, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots and pink grapefruits. However, 85 per cent of most people's dietary intake of lycopene comes from tomatoes and tomato paste.
Cooking tomatoes helps release lycopene from the tomato cells, so that lycopene is more easily absorbed. Lycopene is fat-soluble, meaning that it's best absorbed when combined with fat such as olive oil, so team these two ingredients together in your next pasta sauce.
For those who don't eat cooked tomatoes or tomato paste products regularly, a lycopene supplement may be the solution.
Lycopene is considered to be safe and well tolerated for most people. However, more studies are needed to find out if taking lycopene supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding is safe.
If you are allergic or sensitive to tomatoes, avoid taking a lycopene supplement.
There is currently no UK or EU recommended daily allowance or upper safe limit. A one-a-day 15mg dose of lycopene, available as 150mg tomato extract supplement, is a typical dose.