Most people admire colorful fruits and veggies, but few know about the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color: lycopene. It has the potential to protect the prostate, prevent oxidative damage, enhance heart health, and more. Read on to discover the benefits of lycopene, best food sources, and safety precautions.
What Is Lycopene?
Lycopene is the bright red pigment that gives color to a number of fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are its main food source in Western societies and make up 85% of total lycopene intake .
Lycopene belongs to the large family of carotenoids, which includes over 600 pigments. The best-known ones are beta-carotene and lutein. We know carotenoids are healthy: a large body of research supports their benefits. Among all the carotenoids, lycopene carries several unique benefits .
- Abundant in foods, especially tomatoes
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
- May help prevent prostate cancer
- Supports heart and brain health
- May protect the skin and eyes
- High doses may cause digestive issues
- Allergies are possible (but rare)
- Most benefits lack solid clinical evidence
- Some people don’t tolerate tomatoes
Antioxidants capture and neutralize free radicals, which can damage tissues and contribute to numerous diseases .
Lycopene is more than just another plant antioxidant. According to some cell studies, it might be among the most powerful ones .
In one study on sperm cells, it preserved sperm motility and protected from oxidative damage .
Best Lycopene Food Sources
Not all red produce contain lycopene, so you can’t spot a lycopene-rich food by color alone. Strawberries, for example, do not contain any. Here is a list of foods that pack significant amounts of lycopene [6, 7]:
|Food||Lycopene (mg/100 g)|
|Rose hips, wild||7|
|Grapefruit, pink and red||1.4|
Health Benefits of Lycopene
1) Heart Disease
Free radical damage plays a large role in heart disease. Antioxidants help in general, but lycopene has unique potential among them .
In an observational study of 1,379 European men, high blood levels of lycopene, but not other carotenoids, correlated with fewer heart attacks. In line with this, low lycopene blood levels were associated with heart disease in an observational study of 210 men [9, 10].
Other observational trials suggest that higher lycopene intake may also be protective against atherosclerosis, a central risk factor for heart disease and stroke [11, 12].
A meta-analysis of 12 studies concluded that the intake of 25 mg of lycopene per day effectively reduces two major heart disease risk factors: “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and high blood pressure .
In another meta-analysis of 21 trials, higher tomato intake was associated with lower LDL cholesterol and improved blood vessel function. It also confirmed the beneficial effects of lycopene intake on blood pressure .
2) Prostate Cancer Prevention
Lycopene tends to accumulate in the prostate and may play a role in prostate cancer prevention .
In an observational study of nearly 50K men, those with higher lycopene intake were less likely to develop prostate cancer. The link was even stronger for a deadly type of prostate cancer. Those who ate more tomatoes had higher lycopene blood levels, which lowered their prostate cancer risk. And once again, other carotenoids had no effect [16, 17].
A large analysis of 17 studies concluded that increased tomato consumption is linked to 15-20% lower rates of prostate cancer. The connection between lycopene intake and cancer rates was weaker but still significant .
The largest meta-analysis of 26 studies and over 560,000 participants confirmed an inverse association between lycopene intake and blood levels and prostate cancer .
Some trials found no connection, but when the authors of the above analysis excluded low-quality clinical trials, the connection was even stronger [19, 20, 21].
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of lycopene for any of the conditions in this section. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit.
3) Breast Cancer Prevention
Eating tomatoes protected against digestive cancers (stomach, colon, and throat) in an observational study of almost 6,000 people .
In another study of over 7,000 women, high blood levels of lycopene were associated with lower rates of breast cancer. Other carotenoids like alpha- and beta-carotene lacked this benefit .
On the other hand, some observational studies failed to make a connection between lycopene intake/blood levels and breast cancer [24, 25].
4) Brain Health and Cognition
Dietary lycopene combined with other herbs such as ginkgo improved cognition in a study of 622 elderly people. But ginkgo itself enhances cognition, making lycopene’s contribution unclear .
Another study paints a clearer picture: of 193 healthy older people, those with higher blood levels of lycopene had better cognitive function .
Lycopene prevented early cognitive decline in rats with diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. In both cases, it worked by reducing oxidative damage in the brain [28, 29].
In another rat study, lycopene improved depressive behavior by lowering brain inflammation. It reduced injury to the hippocampus, the brain’s hub for memory and emotions .
5) Sunburn Protection
In a study of 22 people, eating 40 g tomato of paste (or roughly ~12 mg lycopene) daily for 10 weeks reduced sunburn and skin damage by 40% .
According to another research group, tomato juice lowers sunburns by almost 50% – but lycopene only accounts for half of the effect .
People with an age-related vision disease called macular degeneration have low lycopene levels. We know numerous other carotenoids improve eyesight; while lycopene may do the same, research is still lacking to support the claim .
7) Pain & Inflammation
In a clinical trial of 102 patients, lycopene supplements reduced the symptoms of chronic pelvic pain syndrome .
It relieved diabetic nerve pain in rats and mice by reducing inflammatory compounds like TNF-alpha [35, 36].
Further research is needed to investigate the painkilling properties of lycopene.
8) Bone Health
According to a study in 33 postmenopasual women, those with higher blood lycopene levels from dietary intake also had less oxidative bone damage. Researchers didn’t measure its effects on bone composition, though .
In a rat study, a lycopene-rich diet increased bone strength better than the typical diet. Additionally, lycopene reduced bone cell death in test tubes [38, 39].
According to preliminary research, lycopene supplements and/or high lycopene intake may not help with:
Lycopene Side Effects & Safety
Common Side Effects
The downsides to lycopene are negligible when consumed in moderate amounts. However, too much lycopene may pose certain health risks.
Excess lycopene intake may cause lycopenodermia or lycopenemia, conditions in which lycopene literally starts turning your skin red like a tomato. It may also cause digestive upset and pain. According to clinical reports, you would need to ingest a lot of tomatoes regularly to trigger it (e.g. 4-5 tomatoes and tomato sauce daily for 3 years) [44, 45, 46].
Anecdotally, excessive lycopene intake causes a number of stomach issues including diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, gas and even vomiting. However, many of these side effects may be from other plant compounds in lycopene-rich foods that trigger gut reactions in sensitive people.
Up to 75 mg/day of lycopene is considered safe. The dosage could even be upped to 270 mg/day without risk of side effects, according to observational studies [47, 48].
Children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding women should avoid lycopene supplements due to the lack of safety data. Eating moderate amounts of lycopene-rich foods is safe. In fact, increased lycopene intake may protect women against high blood pressure in pregnancy (preeclampsia) .
Some people are allergic or sensitive to lycopene, and ingesting it may trigger flare-ups.
Lycopene Supplements & Dosage
Lycopene supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. In general, regulatory bodies aren’t assuring the quality, safety, and efficacy of supplements. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
How to Increase Your Intake
There are essentially two ways to increase your lycopene intake:
- Eat more lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes, as suggested by the American Cancer Society. You’ll also get other healthy compounds this way. To rewind, lycopene is responsible for only part of the beneficial effects of tomatoes .
- Lycopene supplements. You’ll get a higher dosage and don’t have to alter your diet, especially in case you’re sensitive to nightshades like tomatoes.
The below doses may not apply to you personally. If your doctor suggests using a lycopene supplement, work with them to find the optimal dosage according to your health condition and other factors.
- Eating tomatoes: You can increase lycopene blood levels and get the antioxidant benefits with just a pint of tomato juice and about 4 oz of tomato sauce per day. This scenario would give you about 20 mg of lycopene .
- Lycopene supplements: 60 mg/day of lycopene for three months improved various measures of health. Supplements are mostly sold as capsules with 10-25 mg of lycopene per each .
Lycopene is the pigment that colors tomatoes bright red. It’s a natural plant anti-inflammatory and a strong antioxidant. Increasing lycopene intake – either through food or supplements – may protect against prostate cancer and heart disease, while the evidence for other benefits is insufficient.
If you don’t tolerate tomatoes, consider getting a supplement with at least 10 mg of lycopene per capsule. Pregnant women and children should avoid lycopene supplements, while others should consult with their doctor first.