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Healing Kitchen

Cancer-Fighting Lycopene
Is ketchup a health food? If you've seen the new ads from Heinz, you might think so. The company touts its brand of ketchup as "America's favorite source of lycopene," a substance they say "may help reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer." The ads highlight the lycopene content of various tomato products--and ketchup leads the list.

Lycopene, the pigment that makes tomatoes red, is what's called a carotenoid--a plant-based antioxidant compound that may protect against cancer and heart disease. Lycopene is even more powerful than beta-carotene the best-known carotenoid.

So should we eat more ketchup? Like other tomato products, it's an excellent source of lycopene. (Grapefruit, watermelon, and guava supply some lycopene too, but not nearly as much as tomatoes.) Still, the Heinz ad is somewhat misleading. It compares the lycopene in tomato products per ounce, not per serving. So you'd have to slather half a cup of ketchup on your burger to get the same amount of lycopene in a cup of tomato juice (see Tomato Stats, below). But no matter how you get your lycopene, here are some of the ways that it may help.

Prostate Cancer
Interest in the health benefits of lycopene has exploded since a large 1995 Harvard School of Public Health study showed that men who ate two to four servings of tomato products a week (tomato sauce, tomatoes, or pizza) reduced their chances of getting prostate cancer. Most recently, researchers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit presented evidence that it may also help men who already have the disease: Cancer was less likely to have spread in men who took lycopene supplements (15 mg twice a day) for 30 days after undergoing prostate cancer surgery than in those taking a placebo.

Other Cancers
A review in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2/17/99) of more than 70 studies examining the link between lycopene and cancer concluded that there is strong (but not definitive) evidence that tomatoes or lycopene can protect against prostate, lung, and stomach cancers. The analysis also found some support that lycopene affords protection against cancers of the cervix, colon, rectum, esophagus, mouth, and pancreas; additional study is needed.

Heart Disease
Lycopene may fight heart disease as well. A study of 1,379 men from 10 European countries revealed that lycopene may lower heart attack risk. And a small University of Toronto study found that boosting lycopene intake for just a week lowered levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.

Can I Take a Pill?
Venket Rao, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of Toronto, recommends you get 25 to 30 mg of lycopene a day through foods. Supplements may be an acceptable alternative, he adds, "although it's not yet clear whether lycopene is the sole protective substance in tomatoes." One option: Take a mixed carotenoid supplement containing lycopene on days you can't eat tomatoes. If you opt for supplements, Dr. Rao advises doubling the lycopene dose to 55 to 60 mg a day, because the body may not absorb the lycopene in supplements as readily as that in foods.

Author: the WholeHealthMD Advisor
Date Published: 01/14/2000
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