Killer tomatoes! Why they're so good for you?

Thanks to a huge and important new study, the case for eating something tomato-ey nearly every day is stronger than ever. The study reviewed 72 earlier tomato studies and found 57 that linked frequent tomato consumption with reduced cancer risks — most strongly for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach. Lower risks of breast, colon, cervical, and other cancers were also suggested (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Feb 17, 1999).

No one can say yet exactly what gives tomatoes their anticancer power. It may be a cocktail of compounds working together. But one of the good guys is almost certainly a substance called lycopene, the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color. Tomatoes are by far the richest source of lycopene in our diets — no other food comes close.

Tomato Tips

Here’s how to get the most lycopene out of tomatoes.

Think processed. Lycopene is highest in processed tomato foods, such as tomato paste, because they’re concentrated. (Remember “eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can”?)
Ideas: Order pizza with double sauce and light cheese. Don’t be stingy with red sauce on your pasta. Enjoy nonalcoholic Bloody Marys made with low-sodium tomato juice, lime juice, and Worcestershire sauce.

Get fresh sometimes. If processed tomatoes are so good, is fresh tomato on your sandwich or in your salad worthless? No way. You still get plenty of lycopene — and people who eat the most fresh tomatoes also get less cancer, studies show.

Reach for the olive oil. You need a little fat to help your body absorb lycopene. If your whole meal is a large salad that includes tomatoes, choose low-fat dressing instead of fat-free.

Send in the Subs

Don’t like tomatoes? Try to eat the only other foods with significant levels of lycopene — pink or red grapefruit, guava, and especially watermelon.

Super Lycopene Sources

Eat something from this list of top lycopene-rich foods every day, and you’ll lower your risks of prostate, lung, stomach, and other cancers, studies strongly suggest.

LYCOPENE-LOADED FOODS LYCOPENE (mg)
Tomato juice, 8 ounces 22
Pizza sauce on pizza, 1/4 cup 21
Canned spaghetti sauce, pasta sauce, tomato sauce, 1/2 cup 20
Campbell’s Tomato Soup, prepared, 1 cup 12
Canned diced tomatoes, 1/2 cup 12
Tomato salsa, 1/2 cup 12
Canned tomato paste, 2 tablespoons 10
Watermelon, 1 cup 8
Guava, 1 medium 5
Ketchup, 2 tablespoons 5
Fresh tomato, chopped, 1/2 cup 3
Pink or red grapefruit, 1/2 cup 2
Two medium slices fresh tomato 1

Sources: USDA/NCC Carotenoid Data Base; Campbell Soup Company; “Lycopene: Chemical and Biological Properties,” Food Technology (Feb 1999)

— by Holly McCord, RD, with Sherry Weiss Kiser

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