How Lycopene Helps Protect Against Cancer

The Physicians Committee

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How Lycopene Helps Protect Against Cancer

Lycopene, part of the carotenoid family, is a pigment that helps give red fruits and vegetables their color.1 It's also one of the free radical-fighting antioxidants.1 Free radicals are damaging molecules that float around in the body disrupting cells and promoting disease.2 Antioxidants, such as lycopene, destroy free radicals so they can't attach to your cells and wreak havoc on your hard-working immune system.

Scientific studies show that lycopene helps prevent prostate, lung, and stomach cancers.3 There is also some evidence that cancers of the pancreas, colon and rectum, esophagus, oral cavity, breast, and cervix could be reduced with increased lycopene intake.3 This hearty antioxidant provides a two-for-the-price-of-one deal as it may help reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by reducing LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lowering blood pressure.1

Lycopene Food Sources

The best sources of lycopene are tomatoes and tomato products, which is where about 80 percent of lycopene in the average American diet comes from.1 Small amounts can also be found in guava, watermelon, and pink grapefruit.1 Table 1 shows the estimated lycopene content of some foods.

Product Serving Size Lycopene
Tomato juice 250 mL (1 cup) 25.0
Tomato ketchup 15 mL (1 tbsp) 2.7
Spaghetti sauce 125 mL (1/2 cup) 28.1
Tomato paste 30 mL (2 tbsp) 13.8
Tomato soup (condensed) 250 mL prepared 9.7
Tomato sauce 60 mL (1/4 cup) 8.9
Chili sauce 30 mL (2 tbsp) 6.7
Cocktail sauce 30 mL (2 tbsp) 5.9
Watermelon 368 g
(1 slice: 25 x 2 cm)
Pink grapefruit 123 g (1/2) 4.9
Raw tomato 123 g (1 medium) 3.7
Source: Heinz Institute of Nutritional Sciences,

Lycopene seems to be best available to the body when tomatoes are cooked and eaten in a meal that provides a small amount of fat.1 One study showed that when tomato juice was heated and mixed with oil, blood lycopene levels increased more than when plain, unheated tomato was consumed.1 Of course, this is not a green light to eat tons of french fries with ketchup in the name of cancer prevention: No amount of lycopene can undo the damage of an artery clogging-diet. You may, however, want to top oven-roasted potatoes with ketchup instead. This is one case, however, where fresh may actually not be best as another study showed that blood concentration of lycopene increased nearly three times when tomato paste was consumed than when fresh tomatoes were eaten.3

Over-the-counter supplements like purified lycopene extracts are not recommended because other phytochemicals from tomatoes may be needed to provide optimum protection from cancer.1 As always, it's best to eat your fruits and vegetables!

Tips for Increasing Lycopene in Your Diet

  • Mix sun-dried tomatoes into bread dough or add them to a veggie sandwich.
  • For an easy, lycopene-rich meal, go with the old standby—pasta with marinara sauce.
  • Add canned tomatoes or salsa to a bean burrito.
  • For a refreshing start to your day, enjoy a pink grapefruit.
  • Reach for tomato juice to quench your thirst.
  • Top a veggie burger with ketchup or salsa.
  • Make a quick bruschetta by toasting baguette slices and lightly brushing with olive oil. Top with canned, diced tomatoes and a sprinkling of basil.
Summer pasta and bean salad
crostini with dried tomatoes vegan recipe

1. Arab L, Steck S. Lycopene and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71:1691S-1695S.
2. Slomski G. Lycopene. Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine 2001. Retrieved on May 22, 2001, from research database,
3. Giovannuccci E. Tomatoes, tomato-based products, lycopene, and cancer: review of the epidemiologic literature. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999;91:317-331.
4. G¹rtner C, Stahl W, Sies H. Lycopene is more bioavailable from tomato paste than from fresh tomatoes. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66:116-122.
5. Cronin JR. Lycopene: the powerful antioxidant that makes tomatoes red. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 2000;6(2):92-94.