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What is lycopene? Why do we need it?

Lycopene is a substance belonging to the carotenid family. Carotenes are a brightly colored group of fat-soluble plant pigments that exhibit antioxidant properties, which help fight cellular damage in humans. Lycopene is red, which helps give tomatoes their distinctive color.

Several studies have shown lycopene to be effective in fighting certain forms of cancer. A 1995 study by researchers at Harvard University found that men who consumed greater amounts of lycopene had a much lesser chance of developing prostate cancer than those who consumed lesser amounts. Other preliminary studies have found that lycopene may offer protection against cancers of the pancreas, colon, rectum, esophagus, oral cavity, breast and cervix. In Europe, researchers have found a link between lycopene intake and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Lycopene supplements have also improved immune function in the elderly.

How much lycopene should I take?

While the Food and Drug Administration has yet to devise a recommended daily allowance for lycopene, the Harvard study showed that men who had the greatest protection against cancer consumed at least 6.5mg per day (or ate at least 10 servings of tomato-based foods per week).

What are some good sources of lycopene? What forms are available?

Tomatoes and tomato-based foods (such as tomato paste, tomato soup, tomato juice and pasta sauce) are the best sources of lycopene. Other foods that contain lycopene are watermelon, pink grapefruit and guava. Lycopene supplements are also available in capsule and tablet form.

What can happen if I don't get enough lycopene? What can happen if I take too much? Are there any side-effects I should be aware of?

To date, no studies have been conducted regarding lycopene deficiency or overdose. At the time of this writing, no adverse effects have been reported concerning the use of lycopene, and no evidence of any drug interactions with lycopene has been reported.


  • Corridan BM, O'Donohue MP, Morrissey PA. Carotenoids and immune response in elderly people. Proc Nutr Soc 1998;57:3A.
  • Deneo H-Pellegrini H, De Stefani E, Ronco A, Mendilaharsu M. Foods, nutrients and prostate cancer: a case-control study in Uruguay. Br J Cancer 1999;80:591—7.
  • Giovannucci E, Ascherio A, Rimm EB, et al. Intake of carotenoids and retinol in relation to risk of prostate cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 1995;87:1767—76.
  • Kanetsky PA, Gammon MD, Mandelblatt J, et al. Dietary intake and blood levels of lycopene: association with cervical dysplasia among non-hispanic, black women. Nutr Cancer 1998;31:31—40.
  • Paetau I, Khachik F, Brown ED, et al. Chronic ingestion of lycopene-rich tomato juice or lycopene supplements significantly increases plasma concentrations of lycopene and related tomato carotenoids in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68:1187—95.
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