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 – 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 (cooked is best, raw is still great) 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 mg a day – to get big benefits.
1. Start with cooked tomato products: Your body can absorb lycopene that has been heated more easily. You’ll get about 4 mg of lycopene in a medium-size fresh tomato, but there’s 25 mg in a half-cup of tomato puree, a cup of tomato soup or vegetable juice cocktail. Even a tablespoon of catsup contains 2.5 mg! And for pasta dishes, dodge the sodium bomb that comes with many prepared or canned sauces. We checked, and some have 650 to 820 mg 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: Sauté 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.
2. Cook with fresh tomatoes, too: Get in the habit of picking up fresh plum or grape tomatoes in the supermarket. They’re available year-round and taste great. You can toss them into soups, stews, casseroles, chili, stir fries, sauces and anything else you can think of. Heating fresh tomatoes for five minutes raises their bio-available lycopene level 54 percent. Letting them simmer for 30 minutes boosts it a whopping 164 percent!
3. Serve with a good fat: Your body absorbs more lycopene when you have some fat at the same meal. A drizzle of olive oil in your homemade tomato sauce or over a salad is all it takes.
4. Branch out: Other foods can supplement your lycopene intake from tomatoes: Enjoy a watermelon wedge and get 13 mg lycopene; a pink grapefruit half delivers 4.9 mg; and a cup of canned baked beans has 1.3 mg.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.