The red color of fruits and vegetables come from natural plant pigments. These red-colored pigments are called phytonutrients and are associated with many health benefits. One phytonutrient in the red family is lycopene.
Lycopene is a phytonutrient from the carotenoid family. It is a powerful antioxidant found in red and pink produce such as tomatoes, watermelon, papaya and pink grapefruit. Research indicates that lycopene may be protective against certain types of cancer such as prostate, breast, stomach, colorectal and lung.
Lycopene may also decrease risk of cardiovascular disease by decreasing LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride – another fat in the bloodstream. Additionally, there is evidence that lycopene may be beneficial for healthy skin, strong bones and preserved brain function.
Tomatoes and tomato-based prepared foods are the most popular source of lycopene in the American diet and up to 80 percent of lycopene consumed is from tomatoes or tomato-based products. Interestingly, the bioavailability of lycopene increases with cooking so cooked tomatoes have more lycopene than raw. Also, a small amount of oil in cooking can help you better absorb the lycopene.
However, please be aware that unless you make it yourself, processed tomato products such as canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato juice and salsa can be high in sodium. Check food labels and look for low salt or boxed tomato products with no added salt. Tomatoes are low in calories and also contain fiber, potassium and vitamins C and E.
Here are some easy ways to increase lycopene in your diet:
Summer in South Carolina means having lots of tomatoes around. If you have a surplus or enjoy making your own, consider increasing your lycopene intake by cooking up some fresh tomato sauce.
Fresh Tomato Sauce
Yield – 32 oz. sauce
4 – 6 lbs. of ripe tomatoes (these can be sad-looking tomatoes – they definitely don’t have to be perfect)
2 Tbsp. lemon juice or red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1 Tbsp. olive oil (optional)
This recipe freezes well.
You can also be creative and add pepper and fresh garlic or herbs such as oregano, basil, parsley, etc., when you are finished cooking.