& Joannie Dobbs Monday,
February 28, 2005
Tomato soup is looking like a contender against chicken for the healthy soup image. Not only soup, but pizza and other foods made with tomato sauce or paste are proving to have a variety of health benefits. Even the widely disparaged ketchup has redeeming qualities that may make it finally deserving of being counted as a vegetable.
Question: What's so special about tomatoes?
Answer: Like many other colorful fruits and vegetables, tomatoes have high levels of compounds called carotenoids. The main carotenoid present in red tomatoes is lycopene. The word may seem familiar, as some multivitamins are adding lycopene and advertising its benefits.
Q: How does lycopene benefit health?
A: Lycopene functions as an antioxidant, which may be the source of its benefits. Scientific studies report that increased intake of tomato products by men is associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Some types of infertility may also be improved.
In women, studies find that lycopene protects against breast and endometrial cancers, and may ease the potential increased cancer risk caused by hormone replacement therapy. A diet rich in tomato products may be especially valuable for women who take estrogen.
Conditions showing up on the list of ailments protected by lycopene also include heart disease, macular degeneration, lung diseases, even osteoporosis.
Q: Are fresh tomatoes a better source of lycopene than canned?
A: Actually, the lycopene in processed products such as tomato sauce or ketchup are absorbed into the body more efficiently. Carotenoids in general are absorbed better from cooked vegetables than raw.
Also, fat-free is not the way to go in this case. Absorbtion of lycopene is dependent on some fat in the same meal (tomato sauce with cheese on pizza, for example, or a little olive oil in spaghetti sauce).
Q: Are lycopene supplements as beneficial?
A: Studies with pure lycopene show some benefits, but the mixture of compounds in tomato products always proves more effective. Tomatoes provide other antioxidant carotenoids that apparently complement the lycopene.
Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences,
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa.
Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Service
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