Lycopene is a hot commodity right now on healthy sites like this one. It is a tomato ingredient with tremendous disease fighting power. But, new research is proving that the lycopene in tomatoes can become much more powerful when there is heat processing applied before ingestion.
Ohio State University research suggests that turning up the heat on the red tomato during processing has the potential to give the popular garden staple added power. Scientists there have found that lycopene molecules in tomatoes that are combined with fat and subjected to intense heat during processing are restructured in a way that appears to ease their transport into the bloodstream and tissue.
The tomato is the primary food source of lycopene, a naturally occurring pigment linked to the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases. Lycopene is also available in supplement form, but it is unclear as to the digestibility of the ingredient as a supplement. Like most ingredients, it's better to get the biochemical in its food form.
In its standard structure in the average red tomato, the lycopene molecule is laid out in a way that hinders the molecule’s absorption through intestinal walls and into the blood. Steven Schwartz, a professor of food science and technology at Ohio State, has found that most of the lycopene that is found circulating in human blood is configured in a another molecular form -- a form that actually appears "bent." This means that either the human body somehow transforms lycopene molecules through reactions that have yet to be identified, or that the bent molecular structures of lycopene are much more likely to be absorbed into the blood and transported to tissue – a necessary step in preventing disease.
Schwartz and colleagues have devised a way to process red tomatoes by applying heat and fat, producing a sauce that seems to speed the ingestion and absorption of lycopene into the body. Professor Schwartz described the research today (8/20) at the American Chemical Society meeting in Philadelphia.
Heat is essential to the process, but so is adding some fat, Schwartz said. In previous work, he and colleagues determined that consuming fat and lycopene simultaneously improved absorption, but the scientists weren’t sure exactly why.
Schwartz said most currently available commercial products don’t contain the right [bent] type of lycopene molecules. But he noted that some home cooking practices might be able to produce the same results as the special processing method he and colleagues designed. That's why if you are truly interested in lycopene as a supplement to your diet, you'll make your own sauce at home, using meat or oil along with high temperatures, to make the lycopene much more easily absorbed.
“Some people like to cook tomato sauce for prolonged periods, sometimes reheating it day after day, because it tastes better on the second and third day. They add fat by using oil or meat, and that’s going to start to induce [the good kind] of lycopene if fat is present and the cooking continues,” Schwartz said. “So it’s possible people could induce this process and increase lycopene absorption by routine food preparation procedures.”