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The tomato, or Solanum lycopersicum,is one of the most abundant yet overlooked plant foods that have the ability to ward off disease. In 2012 alone, about 162 million tonnes of tomato were produced worldwide as they form a staple part of many diets and cuisines spanning from Asia to the Americas. Tomatoes are of particular value because of their high levels of phytochemicals. The phytochemicals which tomatoes are specifically high in are vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and carotenoids – the most important of which is lycopene. These carotenoids are essentially what give each fruit and vegetable their distinctive color which is bright red in the case of the tomato.
Carotenoids And Lycopene
Carotenoids and lycopenes work through many ways, however their primary mechanism is as anti-oxidants. Antioxidants essentially scavenge the body of harmful substances called free radicals which cause numerous chronic diseases. By capturing these 'reactive oxygen species', lycopene inhibits further damage to DNA strands, proteins and fats that lead to the negative attributions of the aging process. As well as its antioxidant properties, lycopene also works in four other ways.
- Lycopene assists in cell communication at areas called 'gap junctions', junctions which are vital for cells to know when to stop growing, something pivotal for preventing tumor and cancer development.
- Lycopene works as a regulatory agent for the endocrine system and in this way controls hormonal and other chemical activity in the body.
- Lycopene affects the immune system in such a way that it helps rid the body of harmful substances, such as early cancer cells and invasive microorganisms.
- Lycopene also is involved in cell reproduction and thereby can prevent the development of cancer cells themselves.
The preventive effect of lycopene for skin cancer is well known and probably the best established anti-cancer effect of this phytochemical. Lycopene works via decreasing the sensitivity of skin to the sun damage through its anti-oxidant mechanisms mentioned above. Prevention of UV damage to the skin reduces the risk of skin cancer substantially. It is advisable to consume more tomato-based products when you are having a holiday in the sun!
Since tomato and lycopene consumption was first established as having a correlation with decreased cancer risk, there have been numerous studies demonstrating their benefits. One study involved investigating 1,806 prostate cancer cases and 12,005 controls and formulating an index by using the three most important dietary factors associated with prostate cancer.
Another study used men with recently diagnosed prostate tumors who were given 15 mg of lycopene twice daily for three weeks before the surgical removal of the tumor. In the lycopene group, the tumors were found to be less invasive and significantly smaller than those in the control. The tumors were also classified as being lower-grade and levels of a tumor marker called PSA, or prostate specific antigen, fell in the supplemented patients whereas In the control group the figure actually rose. Other human studies have also validated these data coming up with similar results.