Attack of the healthy tomato!

Tomatoes containing high levels of the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene have been developed by researchers from Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The tomatoes have three times the amount of the pigment lycopene than conventional tomatoes. (Source: USDA Agricultural Research Service.)

Scientists have developed a tomato that contains as much as three and a half times more of the cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene. While working to develop tomatoes for food processing that were of higher quality and would ripen later, researchers at Purdue University and the US Department of Agriculture’s

Agricultural Research Service discovered that the new tomatoes had significantly more lycopene.

“We were quite pleasantly surprised to find the increase in lycopene,” says Aytar Handa, professor of horticulture at Purdue. “This is one of the first examples of increasing the nutritional value of food through biotechnology. In fact, it may be the first example of using biotechnology to increase the nutritional value of a fruit.”

Co-discoverer Autar Mattoo, who heads the USDA Vegetable Laboratory, says the increase in lycopene occurred naturally in the genetically modified tomatoes. “The lycopene levels increased two to 3.5 times compared to the non-engineered tomatoes,” he said.

Lycopene is a pigment that gives tomatoes their characteristic red color. It has been the focus of attention since 1995, when a six-year study of nearly 48,000 men by Harvard University found that men who ate at least 10 servings of foods per week containing tomato sauce or tomatoes were 45 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer. The study also found that those who ate four to seven servings per week were 20 percent less likely to develop the cancer.

Research has found that lycopene also reduces the amount of oxidized low-density lipoprotein—the so-called bad cholesterol—and therefore may reduce the risk of heart disease.

“This characteristic may be responsible for lycopene’s ability to mitigate epithelial cancers, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer, and for its ability to mitigate coronary artery disease,” Mattoo said.

Despite the benefits, it’s been difficult to increase the amount of lycopene in the diet, says Randy Woodson, director of Agricultural Research Programs at Purdue. “When you just take lycopene as a drug it doesn’t have the same effect,” Woodson says. Another wrinkle is that when it comes to lycopene in tomatoes, cooked tomato sauces are more effective than raw tomatoes.

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