Lycopene is a natural compound found in many foods, from pizza sauce and ketchup to watermelons and grapefruits. It’s a chemical called a carotenoid, which are natural pigments that give color to plants, fruits, and vegetables.
As a red carotenoid, lycopene is widely found in red and pink fruits and vegetables. It’s known as one of the most powerful natural antioxidants, and because it’s still effective when heated, it’s easy to add to your diet through both fresh and processed foods.
Lycopene’s main health benefit is its antioxidant function.
Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals build up naturally in response to aging, but their levels increase due to environmental and behavioral factors like pollution and smoking.
Free radicals cause cell damage — in high levels, this damage is linked to a wide range of health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. By stabilizing these free radicals, scientists believe that lycopene may reduce the risk of developing chronic illnesses.
While research is ongoing, lycopene may also promote good oral health, bone health, and blood pressure.
In addition, lycopene is thought to have these other health benefits:
Reduced Cancer Risk
While more research is needed, studies have found a connection between lycopene intake and cancer prevention — particularly for bone, lung, and prostate cancers. Experimental studies have shown that lycopene slows or stops the growth of cancer cells.
It’s thought that this effect is due to lycopene’s uniquely strong antioxidant abilities. Because it's not changed into Vitamin A in our bodies like most carotenoids, scientists believe its antioxidant properties are enhanced, helping to reduce cell damage that can lead to cancer.
A recent study found evidence that lycopene reduced bad cholesterol (LDL) while increasing good cholesterol (HDL) levels.
This balance is important because high cholesterol develops fatty deposits in our blood vessels, which can clot and lead to a heart attack or stroke. In addition, lycopene can help to maintain good blood pressure, further reducing the risk of heart disease.
Long-term lycopene consumption is also linked with skin cancer prevention. Several studies show that people who included tomato paste in their diet daily experienced up to 40% less ultraviolet (UV) skin damage from sunlight than those who did not.
While tomatoes can’t substitute for sunscreen, researchers found lycopene to provide a consistent level of skin protection, similar to a sunblock with SPF 1.3 protection. In addition, lycopene was shown to boost levels of procollagen in the skin significantly, which scientists believe has the potential to reverse skin damage caused by aging.
Improved Fertility in Men
A recent study found that consuming 14 milligrams a day of lycopene can improve fertility in healthy young men by about 40 percent.
Lycopene has been shown to reduce pain to a degree similar to that of ibuprofen medication. Several studies have looked at its effects on nerve pain — which is traditionally very difficult to treat. The results in animals are promising, showing significant levels of decreased pain and hypersensitivity from lycopene intake.
Lycopene is considered safe and there are no established upper limits recommended for its consumption.
However, some cases of extremely high lycopene intake have led to slight skin discoloration. One case study reported that a woman who drank about 2 liters of tomato juice daily over several years developed an orange tint to her skin. This issue is only temporary, however. After reducing her lycopene intake, the woman's skin discoloration faded in a few weeks.
While research is ongoing, there are not currently any known negative side effects associated with taking lycopene. However, high levels of lycopene may not be suitable for:
- People with low blood pressure
- People with stomach ulcers
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women
- People taking medication for heart disease, cancer, or skin conditions
- People using hormone therapy
Talk to your doctor before changing your diet to ensure lycopene is safe for you and won’t interact with medications you take.
How to Take Lycopene
While there are no known effects of lycopene deficiency, doctors recommend consuming about 10 milligrams a day as part of a healthy diet.
It’s also advised to get this lycopene from food sources to gain the most benefits. Supplements are available, but it’s unclear if they pack the same power as lycopene found in whole foods.
Here are some excellent sources of lycopene:
- 1 cup of canned tomato sauce: 37 milligrams
- 1 wedge of raw watermelon: 13 milligrams
- 1 tablespoon of canned tomato paste: 3 milligrams
- 1 tablespoon of ketchup: 2.5 milligrams
- 1 tablespoon of salsa: 1.7 milligrams
Research also shows that lycopene is better absorbed by our bodies when heated and combined with healthy fats like olive or coconut oil.
Some great ways to get the best absorption of these lycopene-rich foods are through recipes like:
- Spaghetti sauces, chilis, and tomato soup
- Broiled grapefruit slices with a bit of brown sugar
- Cooked carrots or creamy carrot soup
- Roasted red pepper hummus
- Shakshouka-style poached eggs in tomato sauce