Lycopene is a carotinoid that is found in red fruits, such as tomatoes and watermelons. Carotinoids are natural pigments that act as antioxidants for the body. Antioxidants serve to lessen the effects of free radicals, blamed by some in the scientific community for damage to cells. Lycopene gets its name from the species classification of the tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum.
Numerous studies have shown that eating foods high in lycopene is beneficial in warding off heart disease and several types of cancer such as lung, prostate, cervical, digestive tract and breast. Continuing studies are looking at the effect on such conditions as macular degenerative disease and serum lipid oxidation.
Those who support those findings urge people to include lycopene in their diet for general good health. Good sources are pink grapefruit, guava, watermelon, and rosehips, but the most common and perhaps most powerful is the tomato.
Tomatoes are chock full of lycopene. Fresh tomatoes are an excellent source, but cooked tomato products such as tomato and pizza sauce, tomato juice, tomato soup, and even ketchup, are more concentrated. For example, one fresh tomato contains 3.7 mgs, while 1 cup (236.5 ml) of tomato soup has 24.8 mgs. Because of the form of lycopene in this cooked type of tomato product, the body can more easily absorb the chemical.
Not everyone has accepted the benefits of lycopene. The world health regulatory agencies have not yet endorsed it as a nutrient, but because of the promising results of early research, the health community is taking a serious look at its role in the diet. Of course, most health professionals agree that a diet rich with fruits and vegetables is part of a healthy lifestyle.
Many dieticians urge people to increase their consumption of lycopene by including tomato-based dishes several meals a week. People can increase their intake by serving sliced fresh tomatoes as an alternative side dish, adding tomatoes to salads and sandwiches, eating red fruits high in lycopene for snacks and breakfast, and by planning main courses that include cooked tomato products.
Companies that produce dietary supplements offer lycopene in both tablet and soft-gel form; some of these products are combined with other dietary compounds. People interested in boosting their consumption can buy these supplements at organic grocery stores, health food stores, or online at dietary supplement sites.
No upper limits of lycopene have yet been established. Participants in clinical studies have been given as much as 6.5 mg per day with no ill effects. To date, there have been no reported incidents of overdoses of this carotinoid.