Lycopene is a substance found in bright red fruits and vegetables that has helpful health and antioxidant benefits. Lycopene itself is a pigment, or color, that comes from a broader family of fruit and vegetable pigments called carotenoids. Carotenoids are the substances that give vegetables their beautiful and distinctive colors - ranging from yellow squash, to orange carrots, to bright red tomatoes and gac fruit. Carotenoids have long been studied for their health benefits and antioxidant activity.
Lycopene gives fruits and vegetables their bright red or orange colors and can be found in commonly eaten foods like tomatoes, carrots, pomegranates, and grapefruit. Gac fruit is particularly rich in lycopene - it is 70 times more concentrated than other sources, like carrots. However, despite the prevalence of lycopene in several fresh foods, about 80% of lycopene consumed in the United States comes from ultra-processed sources like pasta sauce or ketchup.
The potential benefits of lycopene have been very well-researched over the past several decades. Studies evaluating lycopene have covered the following areas:
The consumption of lycopene rich foods, like tomatoes, has been associated with a lower occurrence of some cancers, specifically prostate, lung, and colon. There are multiple studies that have evaluated the potential benefits of lycopene in prostate cancer. Once study showed that men who consume more than 2 servings of lycopene rich foods per week had a reduced risk of prostate cancer, compared to those that only had 1 serving per month. A separate study also showed that men that consume more lycopene from their diet or through supplements tend to have better prostate health.
The association of lycopene consumption and other cancers - for example lung, colon, and breast cancer - is still being researched. Studies have shown that lycopene intake may be associated with lower biomarkers for these types of cancers but more research is needed.
Cardiovascular Disease / Heart Disease
Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. Several studies have tried to determine if there is a link between lycopene intake and heart health. One study in almost 40,000 women determined that those who reported eating more lycopene rich foods had a significant reduction in the occurrence of heart disease and were less likely to have a heart attack.
Besides cancer and heart disease, lycopene intake has been associated with other health benefits. These include gingivitis (gum disease), osteoporosis (bone health), and some mental disorders.
1. Story EN, Kopec RE, Schwartz SJ, Harris GK. An update on the health effects of tomato lycopene. Annual review of food science and technology. 2010;1:189-210.
2. Giovannucci E, Rimm EB, Liu Y, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. A prospective study of tomato products, lycopene, and prostate cancer risk. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2002;94(5):391–98.
3. Sesso H, Liu S, Gaziano JM, Buring JE. Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women. J Nutr. 2003;133(7):2336–41.