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 lycopene-rich foods also might help protect skin from sun damage.
No one knows how much lycopene is needed, 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. Blood levels of this heart-healthy compound decrease with age, so the older we are the more we need. Women with the lowest heart-disease risk in one 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.
Lycopene is best absorbed and most helpful to the body when it comes from cooked and processed foods. That’s because heat helps breakdown cell walls, releasing lycopene and making it easier for the body to absorb. Fresh tomatoes also supply lycopene, each one adding about 4 to 5 milligrams of lycopene to the diet. Studies show that people who include seven or more fresh tomatoes into their weekly diet have up to a 60% reduction in cancer. Choose deep-red tomatoes, since they have more lycopene than pale red, yellow, or green tomatoes. Vine-ripened tomatoes have more than those picked green and allowed to ripen later. And, those grown outdoors in the summer have more lycopene than those grown in greenhouses. You need a little fat to boost absorption of lycopene.
Watermelon packs a nutritious bang for each bite, but keep in mind that lycopene is only one of almost one million phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables that help lower your risk for heart disease, all other age-related diseases and might even help slow the aging process. You can’t supplement with lycopene and think you have covered your bases. You need to eat really well and supplement responsibly.