Tomatoes Valuable Antioxidant Source

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  3/22/2005 2:18:10 AM

Americans each eat more than 16 pounds of fresh tomatoes a year and consume the equivalent of 79 pounds in processed tomatoes annually. Tomatoes are a rich source of antioxidants, including vitamin C and lycopene, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.

"Antioxidants are important parts of a healthy diet and help protect healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals," the LSU AgCenter nutritionist says, adding, "Antioxidants have been attributed to preventing cancer, heart disease and other diseases."

She explains that free radicals are substances that attack healthy cells. When healthy cells are weakened, they are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Free radicals are produced by normal body functions, such as breathing or physical activity, as well as by smoking, exposure to sunlight and pollutants.

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant and belongs to a group of more than 600 carotenoids, or foods rich in vitamin A. Carotenoid sources include red, orange, deep-yellow and some dark green leafy vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and broccoli.

Reames says lycopene has been the focus of much attention since 1995, when a six-year study of nearly 48,000 men by Harvard University found that men who ate at least 10 servings of foods per week containing tomatoes or tomato sauce were 45 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer.

The study also found that those who ate 4 to 7 servings per week were 20 percent less likely to develop the cancer. That research was published in the "Journal of the National Cancer Institute." Reames says other research has found that lycopene also reduces the amount of oxidized LDL (low-density lipoprotein, known as bad cholesterol) and therefore may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Clinical studies designed to answer questions about lycopene's role in preventing or treating disease are in progress. Research has shown that eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day lowers the risk of many cancers.

"Canned tomatoes can be more nutritious than fresh, because they’re picked and processed in a manner that helps retain all the goodness," Reames says, pointing out that scientists also have discovered that packaged, heat-processed tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce, contains more than six times the amount of lycopene than the equivalent amount of fresh tomatoes. This occurs because the heat used during processing breaks down tomato cell walls, allowing the lycopene to be better absorbed into the digestive tract.

Because lycopene is fat soluble, it is more easily absorbed if eaten with fat. To increase absorption, add a little olive oil to your favorite tomato-based dish, Reames recommends.

The LSU AgCenter nutritionist also recommends contacting an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office to learn more about lycopenes.

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