This powerful antioxidant offers a range of health benefits, says Jane Collins. Here's what you need to know.
🕒 3 min read
What is it?
Lycopene is a plant chemical known as a carotenoid. It gives certain fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, red peppers, watermelon and red grapefruits, their distinctive red colour.
Lycopene is also found in high amounts in tomato-based products like tomato paste, sun-dried tomato paste, tomato juice and ketchup.
How does it work?
Lycopene is an antioxidant which can help protect your body from the effects of free-radicals – rogue molecules which can damage your DNA and other cells.
For this reason, it has been suggested that it can potentially reduce the risk of some chronic conditions, including heart disease and some cancers.
What can it help?
Emerging evidence suggests lycopene's antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties could have heart protective effects, including maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood pressure. Higher lycopene levels have also been linked to a reduced risk of strokes.
It is thought that lycopene can act as a kind of internal sunscreen and offer some protection from sunburn, UV damage and premature ageing.
Whilst it should not be used as an alternative to topical sunscreen, one study has shown that after eating lycopene or lycopene-rich foods like tomato paste for up to 12 weeks, the participants in the study showed decreased sensitivity to UV light.
Tomatoes are also a rich source of vitamin C, which is vital for stimulating collagen production. Collagen is the protein that provides structural support for the skin, helping to keep it 'springy' with fewer lines and wrinkles.
There is growing evidence to show lycopene can help support bone health and bone density (the strength of your bones). In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine, lycopene was found to improve the production of bone tissue.
In studies on animals, lycopene has been found to have some neuroprotective effects – suppressing the release of inflammatory cytokines (chemical messengers between cells that help regulate the inflammatory response) and helping to reduce the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain (which have been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's). No similar studies have been carried out on humans, however.
Lycopene is known to protect the body from oxidative stress and may be helpful in preventing common eye diseases. In one study it was shown to significantly delay the onset, and progression, of cataracts.
Regularly eating lycopene-rich foods has been shown to inhibit the growth of human prostate cancer cells in in vitro lab studies. A meta-analysis has also suggested that men who ate more lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes had a slightly lower risk of developing prostate cancer.
More research is needed into the cancer reduction claims for lycopene but we do know it is a potent antioxidant – and antioxidants protect cells from damage.
Combining tomatoes or tomato products with a little olive oil or other healthy fat will make it easier for your body to absorb the lycopene.
How safe is it?
Lycopene is generally safe but taking too much has been known to result in the harmless condition lycopenemia, where your skin, particularly the palms of your hands, can turn an orangey-yellow colour.
Excessive consumption has also been known to cause digestive troubles and acid reflux.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid it. One study suggests taking it during pregnancy could result in premature birth and low birth weight.
There is no formal guidance or recommendation for lycopene supplement intake. In studies it has been used in doses of between 15-45mg daily and this has been shown to be safe.
Vitamin E. It is another potent antioxidant that is important for vision, brain health and skin.
Lycopene might slow blood clotting so stop taking it at least two weeks before any planned surgery. If you are on any medication for blood clotting, lycopene could increase your risk of bruising and bleeding.