Lycopene is one of hundreds of carotenoids in food, beta carotene being the most famous. Lycopene is a pigment in red fruits and vegetables;watermelon is the richest source of lycopene, but other good sources include tomatoes, papaya, pink grapefruit, and guava. (Strawberries are red, but they get their color from another compound other than lycopene.) Unlike beta carotene, lycopene cannot be converted to vitamin A in the body, but it is an even more potent antioxidant than beta carotene, which might be one of the reasons why lycopene lowers heart disease risk. It also might explain why diets rich in lycopene are associated with lower risks for all sorts of cancers, especially cancers of the prostate, cervix, skin, bladder, breast, lung and digestive tract. Eating a lot of lycopene-rich foods also might help protect skin from sun damage.
How much do you need? No one is completely sure, but studies show that people who include anywhere from 7 to 10 servings a week of lycopene-rich foods have the lowest risk for heart disease. It also looks like blood levels of this heart-healthy compound decrease with age, so the older we are the more we need. What we do know is that the more fruits and vegetables you eat the better, and there is no evidence that lycopene-rich foods are harmful at any dose.
For example, the women with the lowest heart-disease risk in the Harvard study averaged about 10 milligrams or more of lycopene a day, that’s the equivalent of about a ½ cup of tomato sauce daily. The average American gets only 3.6 milligrams, or slightly more than a third of that. It’s not difficult to boost your lycopene intake. Since we’re supposed to include 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily in our daily menu, just make sure one or two of those are tomatoes, any tomato product, or other lycopene-rich foods, such as the ones we have here.