Eat More Red: Liking Lycopene

Red TomatoRed, orange and yellow colors in vegetables and fruits derive from pigments called carotenoids.  Carotenoids represent a variety of antioxidants and phytonutrients (phyto from the word plant).    

One of the most common red carotenoids is lycopene.  Lycopene is a key carotenoid in a healthful diet. Foods high in lycopene are linked to lower risks of certain types of cancer and improved eye and heart health.  Some research also indicates that lycopene is associated with reduced build up of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis.)

Vegetables highest in lycopene are red tomatoes, particularly sun-dried tomatoes. When foods containing lycopene are heated or mechanically processed, the lycopene’s bioavailability increases so that your body can make more use of it.  For example, sun-dried tomatoes have more than 16 times the lycopene than raw tomatoes for the same quantity by weight.

The table below shows the different amounts of lycopene measured in micrograms per gram.  Even though some of the foods are very high in lycopene, you may not want to eat large amounts of these foods.  While tomatoes have only 2,767 mcg and Russian dressing has 3,576 mcg of lycopene, this is equal to eating one tomato at 30 calories compared to 7 tablespoons of dressing at 355 calories.  Better to just eat 2 tomatoes and save nearly 300 calories to get the same amount of lycopene.  Be aware also that there are many colors of tomatoes, but only red tomatoes have measurable amounts of lycopene.  Use the following table to help your body get the lycopene it needs and eat more red!

Measureable Levels of Lycopene

 Very High levels Mcg of Lycopene per 100 grams
Sun-dried tomatoes 45,902
Canned tomatoes or paste 28,764
Ketchup 16,709
Canned tomato sauce 13,979
Tomato juice  9,037
High Levels  
Pink guava, raw 5,204
Watermelon 4,532
Canned tomatoes, stewed 4,088
Russian salad dressing* 3,576 
Thousand Island dressing* 3,098
Whole tomatoes, raw 2,767
Moderate levels  
Pink or red grapefruit, raw 1,419
Red sweet peppers, sautéed 484
Red sweet peppers, raw 308
Low levels  
Chili powder 21
Red cabbage 20
Cinnamon powder 15

Source: USDA Nutrient Data laboratory

 *Russian dressing and Thousand Island dressing should have tomato based products in them, but these are very calorie intense ways to eat tomato products.

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