Know Your Nutrients: Lycopene

Better understanding of how nutrients in our diet work, their health benefits, and their nutritional sources can help guide dietary choices for optimal health and well-being. We know that whole, plant-based foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, roots, grains, legumes, and nuts, offer the human body a variety of nutrients with many health benefits. We also know to moderate, if not completely avoid, processed foods, which are often high in added saturated fats and sugars, with little-to-no nutrients. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to learn that lycopene, a nutrient with powerful antioxidant properties, can actually be absorbed more easily by our bodies when consumed with fat and/or certain processed foods exposed to heat. In this “Know Your Nutrient,”  we review the properties, benefits, and sources of lycopene, a nutrient with surprising dietary sources.

Properties and Benefits

Lycopene is a red carotenoid pigment responsible for producing the naturally occurring red and pink pigmentation in certain fruits, vegetables, and berries. Lycopene is recognized for its considerably potent antioxidant properties, which are known to help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals.1

Free radicals are highly unstable molecules produced naturally in the body, as byproducts of metabolism, or through exposure to environmental toxins, such as ultraviolet light and tobacco smoke. When overproduced, these free radical compounds can damage our DNA, which can cause cellular mutations that result in cancer.2

Antioxidants offer the body protection against the harmful free radical imbalances. Numerous epidemiological studies (relating to the branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases) have correlated increased lycopene consumption with reduced risk of certain diseases, such as heart disease, macular degeneration, and prostate cancer.3

Dietary Sources

Lycopene can be found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as guava, tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, red bell peppers, persimmons, asparagus, red cabbage, and mangoes. Research indicates that consumption of these lycopene-rich foods can provide many health benefits associated with lycopene’s antioxidant properties. However, though a bit contrary to current nutrition guidelines, research has shown that, unlike most other plant-based nutritional compounds, lycopene is more highly concentrated and easily absorbed in the gut after lycopene-containing foods have been processed through mechanical and thermal refinement. Lycopene in processed tomato paste, tomato sauce, and even pizza, for example, is more efficiently absorbed by the body compared to consumption via unprocessed, natural sources (e.g., eating a raw tomato or grapefruit).3 This is because lycopene is lipid-soluble, meaning it must be combined with a fat in order for the gut to be able to absorb it into the body. Heating foods containing lycopene further enhances its bioavailability. The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) has not yet established a recommended daily intake for lycopene; however, studies have reported that an average consumption of 8 to 21mg a day has been shown to be beneficial to health. The optimal amount of lycopene someone should consume depends on a number of factors such as sex, genetics, health, and lifestyle.1

In addition to being found in a variety of foods, lycopene is also available in supplemental form, though studies show that lycopene appears to have more beneficial effects when consumed in the form of food, rather than as a supplement.4

Safety Concerns

It should be noted that supplemental lycopene may slow down the action of certain drugs, such as blood thinners and blood pressure-lowering medications when taken as a supplement.2

There are additional safety concerns regarding increased consumption of lycopene, especially by way of supplements. Pregnant women who took 2mg of daily lycopene throughout pregnancy were shown to have a greater risk of preterm labor or premature delivery as well as lower birth weight.5  In another study, adult men who consumed two liters of tomato juice every day for years developed skin discoloration. The skin discoloration is known as lycopenodermia. Once a person goes without excessive lycopene for a period of time, the skin discoloration is reversed.6

Bottom Line

Numerous studies have associated diets high in lycopene-rich foods with numerous health benefits, such as reduced risk of heart disease, macular degeneration, and certain cancers (e.g., prostate).2 Lycopene is considered one of the most potent antioxidants. When lycopene-containing foods are heated prior to consumption and/or combined with a fat, lycopene absorption is enhanced significantly. Although guidelines suggest limiting consumption of processed foods and fats/oils, incorporating some type of fat when consuming whole, lycopene-rich, plant-based foods has been reported to increase the body’s ability to absorb lycopene as much as four-fold.2 For example, adding full-fat salad dressing, an avocado, and/or olive oil to a salad containing lycopene-rich plant-based foods, such as tomatoes and red bell peppers, can increase lycopene’s bioavailability in the body. Increased consumption of heated tomato-based food, such as spaghetti sauce, has been linked to reduced risk of several diseases.

Editor’s Note

For some individuals, consuming oils or fats to enhance lycopene absorption may not be sufficiently justified by any conferred health benefits. Consult with a qualified healthcare professional or licensed dietitian to determine what dietary choices are most optimal for your individual health needs and well-being.

SOURCES

1.   Lascari AD. Carotenemia: a review. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 1981;20(1):25–29.

2.  MedlinePlus website. Lycopene. Updated 29 June 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/554.html#Safety. Accessed 13 July 2021.

3.  Petre A. Lycopene: health benefits and top food sources. Updated 3 Oct 2018. Healthline website. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lycopene. Accessed 13 July 2021.

4.  Welter ML. The effects of lycopene on your health. North Dakota State University. 2004.

5.  Banerjee S, Jeyaseelan S, Guleria R. Trial of lycopene to prevent pre-eclampsia in healthy primigravidas: results show some adverse effects. J Obstet Gynaecol Res. 2009;35(3):477–482.

6.          Trumbo PR. Are there adverse effects of lycopene exposure? J Nutr. 2005;135(8):2060S–2061S

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