Are tomatoes part of your life? If they are not, try to make them, as tomatoes are one of the best antioxidant foods and have been associated with a lower incidence of heart disease. Many scientific studies have shown that people who eat tomatoes and tomato products regularly are less likely to suffer from heart attacks, a condition very much related to diabetes.
A very short history of tomatoes
Europeans were introduced to tomatoes in the 16th century when the Conquistadors reached Mexico. Despite the tomato’s initial acceptance by Southern Europeans, Northerners were hesitant to eat tomatoes because they belong to the same family as the poisonous nightshade, a wild plant related to potatoes and eggplants. Thus the British proclaimed the tomato was poisonous and stayed away from it. In the meantime, the Mediterranean countries, especially Italy and Spain, welcomed the new fruit, which quickly became a staple to their cuisine.
Tomatoes are high in lycopene
Many studies have identified lycopene as the substance responsible for the antioxidant properties of tomatoes. A large body of evidence suggests that eating tomatoes prevents the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, the “bad” guy. Oxidized LDL Cholesterol is considered the primary initial step leading to the formation of plaque in the arteries and consequently to heart attacks.
What is lycopene?
Lycopene is the red pigment found in several fruits and vegetables such as guava, rosehips, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and red chilies, but it mainly comes from tomatoes and tomato products. Many scientific studies have shown that people who eat tomatoes and processed tomatoes on a regular basis, are less likely to suffer from heart disease than people who don’t eat tomatoes regularly.
As a powerful antioxidant, lycopene prevents the oxidation of LDL cholesterol caused by free radicals. In a study to investigate the effects of tomato lycopene on the oxidation of cholesterol, Agarwal and colleagues provided the participants one-to-two servings per day of tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, and concentrated lycopene for one week. The study showed an important reduction in oxidized LDL cholesterol.1
Lycopene can also reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood. For three months, 60 men were fed 60 milligrams of lycopene per day—the equivalent found in 1 kilo of tomatoes. At the end of the treatment period, the results showed a 14 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol in the blood.2
Absorption of Lycopene
An important consideration in studying lycopene is its absorption by our cells. Our tissues have to gulp lycopene from the food we eat and get it inside the cells before it can be put to some use. Research has shown that how much lycopene our cells absorb is a better indicator of disease prevention than the amount of lycopene we eat. Individuals who have a high concentration of lycopene in their body tissues have a lower risk of heart attacks than those who have a low level. Research has also shown that lycopene is better absorbed when the meal includes some fat.
Best way to Absorb Lycopene
Lycopene is better absorbed if the meal includes a source of fat or if the tomatoes have been heated, as in the case of tomato sauce and tomato paste. A study published in 1998 showed that our cells absorb lycopene better from processed tomato products than from fresh tomatoes3̣ because the heat changes the chemical structure of lycopene and makes it ready for our cells to swallow it up. Once inside the cells, it is deposited in all our organs.
This is what you can do to increase the Absorption of Lycopene
- Process the tomatoes with heat. An example would be tomato sauce, tomato paste, or tomato soup.
- Eat fresh tomatoes with fats such as olive oil.
- Eat products that contain lycopene with other food antioxidants. For example: eat tomatoes with other vegetables in your salads. Use olive oil and lemon juice as dressing, and you will have the perfect combination of lycopene and antioxidants.
In a study conducted by Tyssandier and colleagues, the subjects were supplemented with 96 grams of tomato puree per day for three months. The volunteers then avoided foods rich in tomatoes for the next three weeks. The results showed that including tomato puree in a regular diet significantly increased blood lycopene, beta-carotene, and lutein. Avoiding tomato products for three weeks decreased the level of all antioxidants as well as the total antioxidant capacity of the blood.4