As a youth I remember spending a considerable amount of time helping my grandmother in her garden. Everything was organically grown. Such progressive thinking was hardly in vogue at the time, but that has changed. Even the ‘corporate’ grocery stores now have many organic food options. During that time frame I remember collecting straw and horse manure at the local county fairgrounds on hot summer days and dutifully rototilling the rather aromatic mixture into the soil under my grandmother’s direction. Even during the cooler winter months, nothing biodegradable would go to waste. My grandmother would always bury organic refuse in the soil where it would decompose over time, adding essential nutrients to the soil. Grandmother’s tomatoes became, within the circle of family and friends, famous for their deliciousness. They certainly were the tastiest, highly sought after treats of the summer. The only competition was the equally succulent corn on the cob. Which paired well with the organic tomatoes.
Over the course of the next several decades I have been intrigued by how many studies have subsequently been published extolling the health benefits of these fruits and vegetables. They have consistently been shown to offer significant antioxidant, health promoting, and disease preventing potential. For instance, numerous studies have demonstrated that lycopene, an antioxidant carotinoid found in tomatoes and other plants, can reduce the risk of various kinds of circulatory disorders, cancer, immunologic dysfunction, and general inflammation. Not all studies are positive, but this may represent the difference between a therapeutic dose and a subclinical level of consumption. That would be, in the case of lycopene, meaning that within population studies, a certain number of milligrams are essential for disease prevention. Some studies have seen positive results in fairly low doses of 3-5 mg. Others have shown more promising results with daily consumption of 10-12mg. The more recent published data from Dr. Edward Giovannucci of Harvard Medical School, which was published in the Journal of Neurology several months ago, showed a substantial decreased risk in prostate cancer and circulatory disorders, including stroke. This could be achieved from the diet by getting just 10 mg of lycopene. While this dose would certainly be reflective of a healthy diet compared to the standard American diet (SAD), it is not particularly difficult to achieve. A wedge of watermelon, for example, has about 12 mg of lycopene. A cup of tomato juice has 22 mg of lycopene.
It is interesting and important to note that a lot of the published data regarding lycopene, other carotinoids, and antioxidants in general are largely food based. In this case, the data does not necessarily support that taking a capsule of lycopene would be more beneficial. What I thought interesting about the overall collected data and this referenced study is that the decreased rate of prostate cancer and strokes in this study both exceeded 50%. That is a substantial decrease. Comparatively, pharmaceutical strategies, if effective, hardly come close and can be associated with a risk of other complications.
In addition, other potential benefits of lycopene have been noted in association with other studies. For example, memory studies completed at the University of Kentucky show that elderly individuals consuming 30 mg of lycopene showed a significantly enhanced preservation of memory. That simple nutritional measure was enough to keep a substantial segment of the population being studied autonomous and not needing the assistance of an extended care facility. This would reflect substantial savings on the burden of health care and, most importantly, an enhancement of life enjoyment. In studies conducted at the University of Toronto, even eyesight problems, including macular degeneration, and other forms of ocular dysfunction could be largely decreased by the consumption of lycopene.
Skin and cosmetic effects are other potential benefits. The consumption of lycopene has been shown to decrease the development of wrinkles and perhaps diminish the reaction to sunburn. Theoretically this would be helpful in the prevention of skin cells turning cancerous. Data such as this has spawned an extensive array of new cosmeceutical options. Included on this burgeoning list are topical creams with lycopene in synergy with other herbal and vegetable derived antioxidants. Extensive data on these types of formulations is somewhat minimal, but remain potentially very promising.
It is important to understand that individual components are often more effective synergistically. As it turns out, eating tomatoes, or other lycopene rich foods, including pink grapefruit, guava, cherries, citrus products, and watermelon, also have extensive array of other antioxidants. Those would include quercetin, which has been shown in numerous studies to be an energy enhancing bioflavonoid, a natural antihistamine, and likely associated with disease reduction. Including, in addition, would be its cousin analog kaempferol. Additionally, there are many other noted compounds, antioxidants, flavonoids, and flavonols in various fruits and vegetables. It is important to remember, as well, that the synergistic complement of other carotinoids and flavonoids are important. Significant as lycopene is, additional compounds found in other food groups, or supplements, such as Pycnogenol, bilberry, blueberry, citrus bioflavonoids, xanthines, and flavonoids all show complementary and synergistic events.
It brings us full circle back around to the importance of a healthy diet, rich in antioxidants, fruits, and vegetables. One should note that organic, when available, is likely the most preferential. Certainly, it wins hands down on taste. I had always thought that my grandmother’s tomatoes would lend an immediate decisive victory to any debate on organic versus commercially prepared foods debate. Anyone who would eat my grandmother’s tomatoes and state that they couldn’t tell a difference between that and a commercially available hydroponically grown tomato at the local supermarket should certainly have their taste buds examined. That bias aside, it is clear from many studies that organically produced products certainly have significantly higher levels of bioactive compounds, and this includes lycopene. Studies done at University of California at Davis had shown that the levels of lycopene in organic tomatoes are at least double those in conventional tomatoes. One should note, of course, that the genetic origin of the seed is important. Organic farmers would generally prefer an heirloom type tomato product or, that is, using products that will reproduce from seed true to the parent plant and haven’t been the subject of genetic engineering to optimize certain traits. And, of course, the treatment of the soil is important as well. Soils which have high levels of nutrients and organic material are going to produce vegetable and fruit products possessing a substantially higher yield of essential nutrients. So this summer, as the tomato season comes into full bloom remember it’s very easy to substantially improve one’s health with tomatoes and other brightly colored fruits and vegetables that not only taste good but will yield long term health benefits as well.
– Dr. Guyer