What We Like about Lycopene

Controlling blood-glucose levels may be first and foremost on the minds of people with type 1 diabetes (T1D), but managing risk factors for heart disease should also be a priority. People with T1D have a higher risk of developing heart disease—conditions that include heart attack, congestive heart failure, and stroke. Because of this, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check are just as important as maintaining healthy blood-glucose balance.

If you’re looking for a way to reduce your risk of stroke, eating tomatoes may offer some advantage. A recent study suggests that high blood levels of lycopene—a powerful antioxidant that gives tomatoes their red color—may be associated with a lower risk of stroke.

In the human body, a biological process called oxidation causes damage or death to cells. Oxidation is thought to contribute to heart disease by boosting levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol), which can thicken the arteries. But a group of nutrients and enzymes called antioxidants are capable of counteracting the damaging effects of oxidation. Antioxidants are found in many fruits and vegetables and include several vitamins, such as vitamins A, C, and E; minerals such as manganese and iodide; and carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene.

Tomatoes and tomato products, including juice, paste, sauce, and soup, are the most concentrated sources of lycopene and have been shown to be associated with decreased risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. In fact, tomatoes and processed tomato products may account for more than 85 percent of dietary lycopene in the North American diet. The good news for people with T1D: red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, pink grapefruit, red cabbage, and red bell peppers are not only packed with lycopene, they are also appropriate for a healthy T1D diet. Ketchup also contains a great deal of lycopene, but many brands are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, so people with T1D should be mindful of their carbohydrate intake when consuming the popular condiment.

In the recent study, researchers at the University of Eastern Finland followed 1,031 men ages 46 to 55 and measured their blood levels of five antioxidants over the course of 12 years. They found that men with the highest levels of lycopene were 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than those with the lowest levels of lycopene. The four other antioxidants tested—alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, and retinol—showed no association between their presence in the blood and stroke.

The long-term nature of the study lends strength to the results, leading doctors to look favorably on lycopene-packed foods. However, the researchers acknowledge that their study does have limitations: they did not have data to control for other possible dietary influences, and the number of strokes was small (only 67 occurred in the 12-year time frame).

An easy way for people with T1D to boost their lycopene consumption is to incorporate tomato products into their diets. For example, a 12-ounce serving of tomato soup contains about 35 milligrams of lycopene, which is considered a healthy intake of the antioxidant. Not only are tomatoes good for your health, but they are also low in carbohydrates and total calories. It’s important to note that the lycopene content of cooked or processed tomato products is much higher than that of raw tomatoes because heating releases more lycopene from the cells of the tomato. For maximum benefits, tomatoes should be chopped, pureed, or cooked with a small amount of fat or oil to unlock the most-available lycopene load. So it’s time to get your skillets simmering and enjoy a heart-healthy meal!