Don't Dread the Red

Brightly red coloured fruits are not just attractive to the human eyes but could taste good to the tongue as well as impact health benefits. A carotenoid common to some but not all of them is a powerful antioxidant known as lycopene.

Lycopene is a natural pigment made by plants, fruits and vegetables which enable them use the energy of the sun to make nutrients. It is a polyunsaturated hydrocarbon which is insoluble in water. Lycopene owes its red colour and antioxidant qualities to its eleven conjugated bonds. It has a higher level compared to similar pigments in the colon, liver, serum, adrenal glands and liver of humans.

Lycopene is functional in the prevention of heart disease as it decreases the synthesis of cholesterol and atherosclerosis by inhibiting platelet aggregation. It is also active against various forms of cancers such as breast, lungs, bladder, ovaries, colon and prostate cancers. People with diets rich in tomatoes appear to have lower risks of certain cancers especially of the prostate, lungs and stomach. In prostate cancer, it acts by inhibiting prostate cell proliferation, increasing cell death (apoptosis) and may affect the insulin-like growth factor intracellular pathway.

Antioxidant effects are increased when lycopene is combined with lutein and a decrease in cancer cell growth is observed when it is combined with Vitamin D or E.

Tomatoes are the most concentrated food source of lycopene common to us; other sources are papaya, water melon, apricots and guavas. Gac fruit which possesses a very high content of lycopene is rare beyond Southeast Asia. Processing of foods containing lycopene increases its bioavailability; cooking breaks down the cell walls of tomato increasing the availability of lycopene. Dietary fat increases its absorption.

There is no outlined recommended daily intake for lycopene. This might not be unrelated to conflicting reports from various sources on its effectiveness in treating some of the outlined diseases. However, promising researches are still on-going.

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