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Lycopene: Red Pigmented Anti-oxidant

The Lycopene Molecule

Lycopene is a pigment that gives fruits and vegetables a red color. It a carotenoid like beta-carotene. The red coloring, which is found especially in tomatoes, has demonstrated anti-oxidant qualities. Antioxidants help destroy free-radicals in the body that cause cell deterioration and the unraveling of cell DNA. Additional benefits of lycopene are thought to include preventing macular degeneration (by absorbing blue bands of light), as well as reducing the effects of heart disease. It may also reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels.1 Additional claims have been made that it can help prevent cancer. Studies have been conducted that show that eating ten or more servings per week of tomatoes reduces chances of prostate cancer significantly (34%).2

Yet, as the Mayo Clinic has noted with regard to lycopene's health benefits:

Estimates of lycopene consumption [for studies] have been based on reported tomato intake, not on the use of lycopene supplements. Since tomatoes are sources of other nutrients, including vitamin C, folate, and potassium, it is not clear that lycopene [by] itself is beneficial.3

Lycopene has been shown to be more powerful than beta-carotene as an anti-oxidant because, unlike most other carotenoids, it is not converted to vitamin A when it is consumed. Many fruits and vegetables contain lycopene. However, the richer sources include, dried apricots, pink grapefruit, pink guava, anything containing tomato sauce, and watermelon.4

Lycopene as a Dietary Supplement

Lycopene is a likely dietary supplement and even may be prescribed by doctors. In high doses lycopene may exhibit side effects, including breathing problems, rashes, tightness in the chest, swelling, hives, or itching skin. Because of possible complications when taken in conjunction with medicines, people under a doctor's care should consult a physician before beginning a regime. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breast feeding, as well as those experiencing high blood-pressure.5

Lycopene is made up of 40 carbon atoms and 56 hydrogen atoms (C40H56). You can see its makeup in the diagram down the right side of the page. Because lycopene is lipophilic, meaning it likes fats, it is better absorbed when taken with oils, such as olive oil. Its molecular structure also explains why lycopene appears red. It has a long stretch of carbon double bonds. "Each double bond reduces the energy required for electrons to transition to higher energy states, allowing the molecule to absorb visible lengths of progressively longer wavelengths. Lycopene absorbs most of the visible spectrum, so it appears red."6

The function of lycopene in plants is similar to that in animals. It helps protect the plants as they go through photosynthesis. Without it many plants would suffer extreme cellular damage from the rays of the sun.7 Thus, it would seem that lycopene is a vital substance in the functions of both plants and animals.

Nutrition Home Page


  1. Cancer.org
  2. American Dietetic Association on Lycopene
  3. Mayo Clinic on Lycopene
  4. Physicians Desktop Reference
  5. Foods Containing Lycopene
  6. Lycocard: Lycopene and Human Health
  7. Carotenoids in Leaves


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