The summer’s last vine-ripened tomato may be a sweet memory, but you still can get your daily dose of its cancer-fighting, heart-protecting phytonutrient lycopene. This superhero isn’t just found in tomatoes. You can find it in other red and orange fruits and veggies (but not strawberries or cherries), and it knocks out a full crew of disease-causing bad guys.
You’ve probably heard that lycopene can lower prostate cancer risk by 23 percent with just two servings of cooked tomato products a week. But more recent discoveries show that one serving a day could reduce your level of heart-threatening, lousy LDL cholesterol as much as 10 percent. And dishing up more servings could lower stroke risk up to 55 percent, support strong bones and even help you get a good night’s sleep!
All these health benefits come from lycopene’s unmatched ability to devour excess free radicals — at healthy levels, those oxygen molecules roam your body, powering cells, helping the immune system and converting calories into cellular energy. But when you eat fried foods, pack on extra weight and live with negative stress, you throw free radical production into overdrive. And excess free radicals cause chronic inflammation, unhealthy gene changes and generally rust you from the inside out.
Enter lycopene. We like it as Mother Nature intended it, from a tomato that you eat at breakfast, lunch or dinner. True, supplements and tomato extracts are all the rage in Europe, and they’re showing up on natural-food store shelves in North America, but over and over, science has shown you can’t get all the powerful health-preserving benefits of nutrients found in food if they are taken in one at a time as a supplement. Even superstars like lycopene rely on a cast of supporting players to get their job done. So, if you absolutely will not eat tomatoes, we think a supplement is a good idea (just make sure you get one that contains lycopene — some tomato extracts don’t!). But for the rest of you, here’s our plan to help you get your daily dose of lycopene from food. It’s such a powerful health booster that you only need a little (about 10 milligrams a day) to get big benefits.
Start with cooked tomato products. Your body can absorb lycopene that has been heated more easily. You’ll get about 4 milligrams of lycopene in a medium-size fresh tomato, but there’s 25 milligrams in a half-cup of tomato puree, a cup of tomato soup or vegetable juice cocktail. Even a tablespoon of catsup contains 2.5 milligrams! And for pasta dishes, dodge the sodium bomb that comes with many prepared or canned sauces. We checked, and some have 650-820 milligrams sodium per half-cup — one-quarter to one-third of the total daily sodium quota for most people. Instead, toss together our favorite fast sauce: Sautee onions and garlic in a little olive oil; stir in a large can of no-salt-added whole plum tomatoes plus a 6-ounce can of tomato paste. Mash up the tomatoes as they heat. Season with fresh or dried oregano, basil, rosemary or thyme.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Michael Roizen is chief medical officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For more information go to www.sharecare.com.