A liking for lycopene: From marinara sauces, gazpacho soups and Asian curries to salsas and salads, tomatoes are the darlings of chefs everywhere, an integral part of most cuisines and a staple item in pantries the world over. However, a tomato is so much more than a luscious fruit. Touted for containing a powerful antioxidant called lycopene, which can zap free radicals from damaging the DNA in your cells and other compounds in your body, turns out lycopene in tomatoes may also reduce your risk of stroke!
So what exactly is lycopene? Like beta carotene found in carrots, lycopene belongs to a family of compounds called carotenoids, which are organic pigments found in the chloroplasts of plants, imparting fruits and vegetables with those brilliant hues such as oranges, reds and yellows that are we are all familiar with.
Loading up on lycopene lowers stroke risk: In a study involving over a 1000 men in Finland published in the journal Neurology, a few years ago, researchers found that folks with the highest amounts of lycopene in their blood were 55% less likely to have any kind of stroke. The researchers chalked this up to lycopene’s ability to reduce inflammation, and prevent blood from clotting. Clots forming in blood vessels are one of the primary precipitants of strokes, and lycopene’s ability to reduce clots from forming may be responsible for the reduced risk.
Promising research with breast cancer: Emerging evidence shows that the risk of breast cancer in post menopausal women, rises with an increase in BMI, (or body mass index, which is an evaluation of your weight with respect to your height). In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, lycopene shows some promise in reducing breast cancer risk in post menopausal women by increasing levels of a hormone called adiponectin, that helps regulate fat and blood sugar levels, thus likely modulating the BMI. Apparently according to the study, this effect was more pronounced for women who had a lower BMI.
The news gets better when it comes to lycopene. In yet another study, researchers found a 19% reduced risk of breast cancer in women with the highest carotenoids levels, compared to those with the lowest.
Superstar among carotenoids: Moreover, in the same study, while lycopene’s cousins, beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, also showed statistically significant risk reduction, the undisputed superstar was lycopene, as the study showed that women with the highest levels, had a 22% reduced risk of breast cancer, compared to their counterparts with the lowest levels.
Additional studies show that diets rich in tomatoes may lower the risk of other cancers as well, especially those of the prostate, lung, and stomach.
Where is lycopene lurking? Tomatoes and tomato products are by far one of the richest sources of lycopene, with a mere 1/2 cup of canned tomato puree providing a whopping 27,000 + micrograms of lycopene, and 1 tbsp of tomato paste providing a hefty 3000+ micrograms. Not to be outdone, 1 slice of watermelon does provide 12,000 + micrograms, and 1/2 a pink grapefruit, 7000 + micrograms.
Tomato chutney: Finger licking good, this spicy, tangy, and mildly sweet chutney is amazingly versatile. Use it as a luscious spread in sandwiches, crackers or crusty bread, a dip with veggies or tortilla chips, or serve as a condiment with meals. It’s so good, you just might get tempted to eat it in spoonfuls, straight out of the jar!
Low-down on lycopene: Our featured recipe offers a delicious means of tapping into the considerable benefits associated with lycopene. What is interesting about lycopene is that it is a heat stable antioxidant that becomes more bio-available (more easily absorbed by your body) after you cook it. This is in sharp contrast to some of the water-soluble B vitamins that are often depleted after cooking. It is also fat soluble, hence tomatoes cooked in an oil rich medium (as featured in this recipe), have a higher lycopene content than raw tomatoes.
Yield: 1.5 cups of chutney
- 6 extra-large tomatoes, chopped into 3/4 ” dice (about 7 cups)
- 1 tsp fresh ginger root, minced
- 2 tbsp. peanut oil
- 1 small, dry red chili
- 1 small stick cinnamon
- pinch of asafetida (hing), found in ethnic Indian groceries, optional
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp chili powder ( or to taste)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp. raisins
- Heat peanut oil in a large, thick bottomed pan.
- Add mustard seeds, cinnamon and hing until mustard seeds sizzle.
- Stir in ginger until ginger sizzles.
- Add chopped tomatoes, turmeric and chili powder.
- Stir the mixture for a couple of minutes on medium high heat. At this time the tomatoes will start oozing out copious amounts of water and the mixture in the pan will turn “soupy”
- Turn down the heat and allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered for an hour or slightly more, until it begins to thicken and reduce. Stir occasionally to ensure contents do not stick to the bottom of the pan.
- Add salt and sugar, stirring well.
- Allow the sauce to cook some more until all water has evaporated, it turns to the consistency of a “paste”, takes on a shiny hue and oil begins to ooze from the sides of the pan.
- Fold in the raisins, and turn off the heat.
- Allow to cool completely before transferring to a glass, air tight container. Must be refrigerated and used within a week of production.
Disclaimer: This blog is strictly for informational purposes, and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult your personal physician or registered dietitian for recommendations tailored to your specific needs.