L is for lycopene – A powerful antioxidant

Dr Sarah Brewer and Nutritionist Rob Hobson continue their guide to the A to Z of Nutrition.

L is for Lycopene

What is this?

As our ramble through the A to Z of vitamins, minerals and nutrition reaches the letter L, we look at the antioxidant busting, free radical fighting property that is conveniently found in some really delicious foods. This month, L is for Lycopene.

Lycopene is a plant compound and pigment that gives certain foods their red colour. This nutrient is not essential to life but offers some health benefits. Lycopene also acts as an antioxidant in the body which can help to reduce the risk of damage from excess free radicals and inflammation.

Who’s deficient?

There is not recommended daily intake for lycopene but based on various research findings it appears that intakes between 9-21mg per day seem to be most beneficial. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at lycopene intakes globally and found that in the UK intakes were around 1.1mg daily1.

What are the common signs of lycopene deficiency?

You wouldn’t become deficient in lycopene as it is not necessary for the body to function properly. However, carotenoids do help to protect the body from free radical damage because of oxidative stress. A poor diet that lacks antioxidants such as carotenoids may put you at greater risk of disease because of damage to cells caused by oxidative stress but this is only likely when this occurs over a long period of time. 

Why do we need it? 

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant which can protect the body’s cells from excess free radicals. The body can deal with free radicals which occur naturally because of normal essential metabolic processes. However, when free radicals outweigh antioxidants, cells are at risk of oxidative damage and there is an increased risk of inflammation in the body. An excess of free radicals may occur for several reasons such as diet, stress and environmental factors. 

How does it work?

Unlike other carotenoids, lycopene is not converted to vitamin A so any health benefits are attributed to its antioxidant properties. Studies have suggested that lycopene is more effective as an antioxidant than any of the other carotenoids such as beta-carotene. Lycopene is found in cell membranes and plays an important role in preventing oxidative damage to membrane lipids (fats). As such, lycopene influences cell membrane thickness, strength and fluidity. The reason this is important is that cell membranes act as gatekeepers allowing nutrients in and waste out of cells. Maintaining cell membrane integrity can help to prevent disease. 

Lycopene has also been indicated in heart disease research. This phytonutrient has been shown to help protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation which has been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease. 

Lycopene-rich foods - L is for Lycopene
Lycopene-rich foods.

Where can I get it from? 

Lycopene can be found in red and pink foods and the richest source is tomatoes. You can improve the availability of lycopene from tomatoes by chopping fresh or using processed varieties such as canned, pureed or sundried. Lycopene is also fat soluble which means it is better absorbed in the presence of fat such as olive oil or cheese.

  • Fresh tomatoes: 3mg
  • Tomato puree: 21.8mg
  • Sun-dried tomatoes: 45.9mg
  • Guava: 5.2mg
  • Watermelon: 4.5mg
  • Canned tomatoes: 2.7mg
  • Papaya: 1.8mg
  • Pink grapefruit: 1.1mg
  • Red peppers 0.5mg
  • Papaya: 1.8mg

How can I include it in my diet?

There are lots of ways to add lycopene to your diet by incorporating the foods above into your meals. 

Breakfast ideas 

  • Fresh pink grapefruit and papaya with yoghurt and chopped nuts 
  • Scrambled egg with chopped fresh tomatoes served with wholegrain toast 
  • Shakshuka (baked eggs with tomato sauce)

Lunch ideas 

  • Tomato and mozzarella salad drizzled with olive oil 
  • Feta and watermelon salad
  • Homemade tomato soup with wholegrain bread

Dinner ideas 

  • Baked red pepper with chopped tomatoes, couscous and feta 
  • Grilled salmon with roast tomatoes and red peppers 
  • Spaghetti with a tomato and black olive sauce 

Supplements are also available such as Healthspan High Strength Lycopene (£19.95 for 60 capsules). 

If you are on any other medication or receiving any type of treatment it is advisable to consult a health professional. 

For more content like L is for lycopene – A powerful antioxidant, you’ll find more healthy eating tips and previous A – to Z of nutrition entries on our Nutrition channel.

References 

  1. Porrini, M., & Riso, P. (2005). What are typical lycopene intakes?. The Journal of nutrition135(8), 2042S–5S.

Tags: , , , Last modified: July 25, 2022

Written by 3:55 pm Nutrition, Health

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