An Introduction to Lycopene
The belief that tomatoes have health benefits can be traced back more than 1,000 years to the South American Indians, ideas that were brought to Europe by Columbus in the 15th century. In addition to their plethora of medicinal uses (especially against prostate disease), tomatoes were also thought to be aphrodisiacs, sometimes referred to as Pommes d’Amour or “love apples”.
Lycopene & the Carotenoid Family
Natural lycopene is what makes tomatoes red and is found in lesser concentrations in a variety of fruit including watermelons and grapefruit. It is a member of a large family of coloured compounds called “carotenoids” present in flowers, insects, birds, fish and other animals. Other common carotenoids, as well as tomato lycopene, include beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Carotenoids such as lycopene play a vital role in nature and without them, there would be little or no life on Earth. Plants, for example, would be damaged by excess sunlight if it were not for the presence of these important compounds.
Their remarkable characteristics mean that carotenoids have been the subject of intense scientific research over the last thirty years and many have been adopted for use in a variety of man-made applications. For example, beta-carotene is widely used in the food industry as a colourant (in eggs, butter and soft drinks amongst others) and has also been used in high doses since the 1950s to treat “porphyria”, an enzyme deficiency that results in a toxic chemical build up in the body.
Humans possess no mechanism to make our own carotenoids, instead we accumulate them from our diet. Some, such as beta-carotene, are easily accumulated within the body whereas others are much less easily absorbed. Natural lycopene is hardly taken up at all from the consumption of raw tomatoes and only becomes “bioavailable” if the fruit is cooked and/or processed prior to eating.