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How the humble tomato is now being hailed as heart medicine

Mail Online


Baked, sun-dried, turned into relish or fresh in salads, tomatoes are one of our favourite foods. And last week, when a dietary supplement containing condensed tomato extract was launched, it was hailed by the medical world as a heart medicine.

The pills, named Ateronon, contain lycopene, which has been found to reduce the damage inflicted by 'bad' LDL cholesterol by 90 per cent in just two months.

Peter Kirkpatrick, neurovascular surgeon at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, who researched the supplement, says this effect is enough to protect the arteries, heart and brain from the risks of heart disease and stroke.

Vine tomatoes

The food supplement, which costs £35 for 30 one-a-day tablets (available online from Boots), owes its medicinal powers to tangerine tomatoes which contain an extra-potent form of lycopene.

So just what are the health benefits of tomatoes and how can you make the most of lycopene in your diet?

What is lycopene?

It is the red pigment that gives tomatoes their colour, and a powerful antioxidant, meaning it helps prevent natural damage and deterioration to the body's cells.

'As an antioxidant, lycopene helps prevent damage to arteries, cells and to DNA,' says Amanda James, a London-based nutritionist. 'One hundred times more powerful than Vitamin E, it counteracts inflammation which contributes to ageing and degenerative diseases such as arthritis and heart disease.'

As it is fat-soluble, lycopene exerts most of its protective effect in the body's fatty tissues such as cell membranes and in the liver.

So what can it do for me?

Clinical research has shown that lycopene helps combat heart disease, reduces the risk of certain cancers and cuts inflammation.

In an analysis of 21 studies, men who ate a diet rich in uncooked tomatoes had 11 per cent reduced risk of prostate cancer, which increased to 19 per cent when tomatoes were cooked. Unlike many nutrients, lycopene becomes more powerful and easy to absorb when heated and cooked.

This unusual quality means lycopene in processed tomato products is four times as powerful than that in raw tomato. Sauces, purees and salsas also tend to be concentrated, meaning that 50g can contain the equivalent levels of lycopene as ten tomatoes. Another study found those eating lycopenerich foods had 31 per cent less risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

A high-tomato diet - one tablespoon of ketchup and a 100ml glass of tomato juice each day - can cut cholesterol levels by 5.9 per cent, with 'bad' cholesterol levels falling by 12.9 per cent, according to research in the British Journal Of Nutrition.

How do I squeeze the most out of my tomato?

Lycopene reaches beneficial levels in 'high-tomato' diets, which involve eating seven to ten servings of tomato a week. The serving is the equivalent of three medium-size tomatoes. This can include pizza topping, raw tomatoes or tomatobased pasta sauces.

Lycopene levels vary according to the type of tomato, with increased amounts found in deep, bright red species. 'Levels of the pigment increase with ripeness, too, meaning the redder and the riper the better,' says Amanda James.

As lycopene is fat-soluble, if you eat tomatoes raw, make sure you add an oil-based dressing so it will be more easily absorbed.

Crushing tomatoes, which occurs during the canning process, also makes lycopene easier to digest.

There is some evidence to suggest organic tomato products are more lycopene-rich.

In one US study, organic ketchups contained three times more of the cancer-fighting chemical than non-organic brands.

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