Lycopene Health Benefits
What Is Lycopene?
Lycopene is part of the carotenoid family. Carotenoids are a variety of plant-chemicals that include more than 750 different types of compounds.
Plants, algae, cyanobacteria, and photosynthetic bacteria synthesize carotenoids. In combination with chlorophyll, it helps these plants photosynthesize and remain healthy.
Animals cannot produce carotenoids on their own, so they must incorporate them through their diet.
Their photosynthetic nature is the reason for carotenoids' bright red, orange, and yellow colors.
Lycopene is responsible for the pink to red tint it gives to tomatoes, pink grapefruit, apricots, red oranges, guava, watermelon, and papayas, just to mention a few.
There are other health-promoting carotenoids besides lycopene, lutein, beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and zeaxanthin. All of them play an important role in keeping you healthy.
The chemistry of Lycopene
Lycopene is a non-provitamin A carotenoid with a linear and unsaturated hydrocarbon structure.
Its molecular formula is quite simple: C40H56 yet its chemical name is complicated: (6E,8E,10E,12E,14E,16E,18E,20E,22E,24E,26E)-2,6,10,14,19,23,27,31-octamethyldotriaconta-2,6,8,10,12,14,16,18,20,22,24,26,30-tridecaene.
This linear chemical structure gives it potent antioxidant properties.
The antioxidant properties of Lycopene
Carotenoids deactivate free radicals, especially singlet oxygen ROS (Reactive Organic Species) that are oxygen atoms that react with cellular molecules, ripping them apart and damaging cells.
This antioxidant function keeps your cells in working order and helps ward off disease. Scientific studies suggest that an adequate intake of lycopene can prevent cancer and heart disease.
Lycopene is "the most effective singlet oxygen scavenger" (1).
What are Free Radicals anyway?
Free radicals (also known as "reactive oxygen species" or ROS) are chemical compounds that your body produces naturally through its daily metabolic processes.
They are highly unstable and reactive compounds that have "unpaired electrons." For this reason, they tend to snatch an electron from other molecules to pair up their electron and become more stable.
But as they do so, they turn the other molecule into another free radical, unleashing a chain reaction of molecular disruption inside your body's cells.
ROS can damage the cell's DNA, walls, nucleus, organelles, and proteins. In other words, it harms and even kills cells. Altered DNA can also lead to cancer.
External factors trigger the production of free radicals (smoking, the sun's UV radiation, pollutants, alcohol, X rays, etc.)
Antioxidants come to the rescue because they inhibit free radicals blocking this chain reaction of "oxidation."
A healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet can minimize the presence of free radicals in your body. You can also add antioxidants to neutralize them.
Health Benefits of Lycopene
Potential protective effects against cancer
Intake of tomato sauce (..). was associated with an even greater reduction in prostate cancer risk [compared to eating tomatoes] Giovannuci et al. (2002) (2)
Breast and ovarian cancer
Animal studies have linked a dietary intake of lycopene to a reduced risk of ovarian cancer (in hens, which have high incidence rates similar to those observed in humans) (3).
Other evidence (4) suggests that consuming lycopene-containing foods may decrease the risk of breast cancer.
Several studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing the incidence of prostate cancer Giovannuci et al. (4) took the data of the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, involving 47,365 men between 1986 and 1998, and found that "frequent tomato or lycopene intake was associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer."
Consuming two servings per week of tomato sauce was associated with a drop in prostate cancer risk of 23%, compared to those eating less than one serving per week.
Benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH)
Schwarz et al. (2008) (5) focused on men who suffered from benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH), a disease that increases the risk of developing prostate cancer.
Schwarz's team supplemented a group of elderly men diagnosed with BPH, with a placebo, while another group received 15 mg⁄day of lycopene. After 6 months, the group receiving lycopene showed reduced levels of PSA (prostate-specific antigen) while the placebo group showed no changes. Furthermore, the lycopene group did not exhibit additional enlargement of their prostate glands, showing that "lycopene inhibited progression of BPH."
Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
Sesso et al. (2003) (6) followed 38,445 middle-aged and older women for seven years and found a clear link between tomato-based products and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
The women eating foods with most tomato sauce (two or more weekly servings) and eating two or more servings of pizza per week, had the highest reductions of cardiovascular disease risk (24% and 34% risk reduction, respectively).
Mozos et al. (2018) (7) reported that lycopene can help prevent heart disease and possibly improve vascular function; they believe this is due to its cardiovascular protective effects.
Lycopene's antioxidative and protective endothelial effects
By increasing the production of antioxidant enzymes, inhibiting reactive oxygen (a type of ROS), and some nitrogen species (another type of free radicals containing nitrogen), it protects the heart's muscles from oxidative damage.
It also prevents the oxidation of LDL (bad cholesterol).
Regulation of fats
Due to lycopene's fondness for fatty acids (oils and fat), it is transported to the fat tissue, acting upon it. It also regulates cholesterol levels.
Platelets are tiny blood cells that help with clotting to stop bleeding, but they are also involved in atherosclerotic plaque, which blocks arteries. Lycopene has an anti-aggregative activity, keeping the platelets from clumping together and clogging your blood vessels. It decreases the formation of blood clots and keeping them small. This effect protects against heart attacks and stroke.
Lycopene lowers your blood pressure
Lycopene inhibits an enzyme known as ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) which is a component of the renin-angiotensin system that controls high blood pressure. ACE regulates the output of the hormone angiotensin-II, a vasoconstrictor, that also influences blood pressure.
Lycopene's antioxidant properties reduce the oxidative stress provoked by angiotensin-II.
Atherosclerosis, heart disease, and arterial stiffness are linked to inflammation. Lycopene is a potent anti-inflammatory agent.
According to a study by Ried and Fakler (2011) (8), lycopene supplements (25 mg⁄day) reduce LDL (bad cholesterol) levels by up to 10%.
Lycopene is a "natural" way to avoid using statins. These are well known for their side effects. A 10% drop in LDL is comparable to the effect of low doses of statins in patients with slightly elevated cholesterol levels.
Liver health and Lycopene
An animal study (Abdel-Rahman, Haidy G et al., 2018) (9) involving rats found that lycopene had a potent protective effect on the liver when the rats were given Bisphenol A (BPA).
BPA is an endocrine disruptor (it interferes with the body's hormone-regulating endocrine system); it has adverse effects on the reproductive, immune, and neurological systems. It also produces oxidative stress in the liver.
The antioxidant properties of lycopene exerted a hepatoprotectve effect. It improved the rats' liver function and reduced the DNA damage caused by BPA.
Bisphenol A or BPA
It is a plasticizer, a chemical used to soften plastic. It can be found in cups, bottles, dental sealants, tubes, pipes, food containers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its use in baby bottles and children's drinking cups in 2012 but did not restrict its use in other consumer products. Some states enacted stricter bans on its use.
Other Conditions that Lycopene could improve
There is evidence that consuming lycopene improves conditions like gingivitis (gum disease), bone mass loss (osteoporosis) (1), asthma (10), and mental disorders (1).
Natural sources of Lycopene
Lycopene content in fruits
Fresh fruits are a natural source for lycopene, the following table gives the amount of lycopene in mg per 100g of fruit (11):
Watermelons had the highest content. Other natural sources of lycopene include carrots, red cabbage, red bell peppers, and asparagus.
But not only fruits contain lycopene, processed products, especially those obtained from tomatoes have even higher quantities of lycopene than the fresh "natural," unprocessed fruit have.
Heating and cooking tomatoes eliminate part of the water and concentrate its other components, including lycopene.
This information is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (12):
1 cup canned tomato puree
1 cup tomatoes, sun-dried
1 cup canned tomato juice
1 cup red stewed canned tomatoes
Processed tomatoes contain more lycopene than the same amount of fresh tomatoes.
Over 80% of the dietary lycopene intake of Americans comes from processed tomato products (such as ketchup, pizza sauce, tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, etc.) (1)
Daily intake of Lycopene around the world
Depending on their diet, people in different countries ingest different amounts of lycopene. Those with a higher intake of fresh fruits containing carotenoids, or processed tomatoes will ingest a higher dose of lycopene than those eating junk food of highly processed -non-tomato- foodstuff (1).
Unites States (men)
6.6 - 10.5 mg⁄day
Unites States (women)
5.7 - 10.4 mg⁄day
There is no official recommended level of lycopene, but there is a consensus that 8 to 21 mg/day are appropriate levels.
A study by Korolev et al. (2020) (13) found that young college-aged Americans only 43.4% achieve the recommended daily levels of lycopene intake, and one-quarter of them didn't have any lycopene sources in their diet.
Their main sources of lycopene were pizza, ketchup, and hamburgers. Young Americans shun healthier options like tomato juice, fresh tomatoes, grapefruit, or persimmon.
Getting the most out of lycopene
As mentioned above, lycopene can be found in fruits and processed tomato products. However, your diet's composition can affect how much lycopene is available for your body to use.
Lycopene is soluble in fats and oils, so if you eat foods containing lycopene with some fat, it will be absorbed more easily.
Eating pasta with tomato sauce and a dash of olive oil or fatty cheese will improve lycopene bioavailability. The same applies to consuming tomatoes in a salad, with an oily dressing.
No lycopene uptake could be measured in studies where the subjects ate salads without an oily dressing (1).
Eating tomato salad with avocado is another healthy option. Avocado has a heart-healthy omega-9 fatty acid known as oleic acid. Avocado increased lycopene absorption 4.4 times in comparison to a salad without the avocado.
Add a healthy oil to your salads, pizza, and pasta to enhance lycopene absorption.
Use healthy oils (such as olive oil or canola).
Does Lycopene act alone?
Food, unlike dietary supplements, is a complex mixture of chemicals. Instead of isolated chemicals synthesized by the pharmaceutical industry, natural, whole-food combines fiber, protein, fat, sugars, starches, vitamins, and minerals plus a wide range of phytochemicals (biologically active compounds produced by plants).
Lycopene is only one of these phytochemicals, and tomatoes, watermelons, papayas, and bananas also contain other healthy bioactive compounds called flavonoids.
Tomato, the largest source of lycopene, also contains healthy flavonoids: rutin, naringenin, and quercetin. All of them beneficial for your health.
So there is a potential synergistic (synergistic means that the sum is greater than the parts) effect of eating tomatoes.
Lycopene and flavonoids may combine to enhance their positive health impact.
Lycopene or lycopenoids?
Some recent studies (14) have questioned if its effect is that of an antioxidant (it does display potent antioxidant properties in vitro, that is, in tests done in culture dishes or test tubes).
This is because the lycopene levels in tissue seem to be too low for it to act as an antioxidant in vivo (inside a living organism).
The alternate theory is that it is metabolized in the body and broken down into lycopenoids which, in turn, are the bioactive compounds that act at a genetic level, regulating gene expression.
Borel et al., (2015) (15) found that tiny genetic variations known as SNPs, in 16 genes, explained the variability of lycopene's bioavailability between different individuals and how they respond to its presence in food and supplements.
Lycopene has plenty of benefits and virtually zero side effects.
It is a great natural antioxidant, cancer preventive, and liver protector.
It is very easily included in any diet (think pasta with tomato sauce, tomato juice, ketchup, pizza topped with tomatoes, and sauce). It should be combined with healthy oils and fats (especially olive oil) to improve its absorption and bioavailability.
References and Further Reading
(1) Story, Erica N et al., (2010). An update on the health effects of tomato lycopene. Annual review of food science and technology vol. 1 (2010): 189-210
(2) Giovannucci E, Rimm EB, Liu Y, Stampfer MJ., and Willett WC., (2002). A prospective study of tomato products, lycopene, and prostate cancer risk. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2002 Mar 6;94(5):391-8
(3) Sahin K, et al., (2018). Lycopene Protects Against Spontaneous Ovarian Cancer Formation in Laying Hens. J Cancer Prev. 2018;23(1):25-36
(4) Michael Schnekenburger, Marc Diederich., (2015). Nutritional Epigenetic Regulators in the Field of Cancer, in Epigenetic Cancer Therapy 2015, Pages 393-425
(5) Schwarz S, et al., (2008). Lycopene inhibits disease progression in patients with benign prostate hyperplasia. J Nutr. 2008 Jan;138(1):49-53
(6) Sesso HD, Liu S, Gaziano JM, Buring JE., (2003). Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women. J Nutr. 2003 Jul;133(7):2336-41
(7) Mozos I, Stoian D, Caraba A, Malainer C, Horbanczuk JO, Atanasov AG., (2018). Lycopene and Vascular Health. Front Pharmacol. 2018;9:521. 2018 May 23. doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00521
(8) Ried K, Fakler P., (2010). Protective effect of lycopene on serum cholesterol and blood pressure: Meta-analyses of intervention trials. Maturitas. 2011 Apr;68(4):299-310. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2010.11.018
(9) Abdel-Rahman HG., et al., (2018). Lycopene: Hepatoprotective and Antioxidant Effects toward Bisphenol A-Induced Toxicity in Female Wistar Rats. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2018;2018:5167524. 2018 Jul 26. doi:10.1155/2018/5167524
(10) Neuman I, Nahum H, Ben-Amotz A., (2000). Reduction of exercise-induced asthma oxidative stress by lycopene, a natural antioxidant. Allergy. 2000 Dec;55(12):1184-9
(11) Theeranat Suwanaruang, (2016). Analyzing Lycopene Content in Fruits. Agriculture and Agricultural Science Procedia Vol 11, 2016, Pages 46-48
(12) Lycopene USDA Food Composition Databases. Accessed 03.Jan.2021
(13) Korolev, A., Kirpichenkova, E., Nikitenko, E., Denisova, E., and Fanda, E. (2020). Lycopene Quantity and Sources in the Diet of Healthy Young People. Current Developments in Nutrition, 4(Suppl 2), 117. https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzaa041_021
(14) Erdman JW, Ford NA, Lindshield BL., (2008). Are the health attributes of lycopene related to its antioxidant function?. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2008;483(2):229-35
(15) Borel P, Desmarchelier C, Nowicki M, Bott R., (2015). Lycopene bioavailability is associated with a combination of genetic variants. Free Radic Biol Med. 2015 Jun;83:238-44. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2015.02.033. Epub 2015 Mar 13.
About this Article
Lycopene health benefits, A. Whittall
©2018 Fit-and-Well.com, 14.Mar.2019. Updated. 02.Jan.2021. https://www.fit-and-well.com/diet-food/lycopene-benefits-as-antioxidant.html
Tags: lycopene, carotenoids, lycopenoids, bioavailability, cancer, cardiovascular disease, phytochemicals, antioxidants, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, chemoprevention, natural remedy, free radicals, health, inflammation, oxidative stress, chronic diseases, nutrition, cancer, asthma.
Subject: Fit-and-Well.com. The health benefits of lycopene. A potent natural antioxidant, a carotenoid that gives tomatoes, papayas, watermelons, and pink grapefruit their pink to red color hue. It can help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and act as an antioxidant. Processed tomatoes (sauces, soups, ketchup) are great concentrated sources of lycopene. Oil like olive oil helps its absorption by the body.