When it comes to cancer, tomatoes have received the most attention for their potential to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Over the past decade, numerous studies have shown that men who eat tomato based foods frequently are less likely to develop prostate cancer then their peers who seldom eat tomato products.
The first study that made a news spash was published in 1995 and reported the results of a study from Harvard Medical School in which researchers followed 47,000 healthy men from 1986 to 1992. At the end of the follow-up period, men who consumed the most lycopene (the bright red carotene and carotenoid pigment and phytochemical found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables) were 21% least likely to have prostate cancer. One of the 46 foods investigated, 4 were significantly associated with protection from prostate cancer; tomato sauce, tomatoes, tomato juice, and pizza. In fact, men who consumed 10 servings of these foods per week had a 35% lower risk of prostate cancer compared with men who ate fewer then 1.5 servings per week.
The researchers followed up again with this large group of men to see if the tomato-prostate cancer relationship persisted. For the period from 1992 – 1998, frequent tomato or lycopene intake was associated with less prostate cancer. When the researchers analyzed the data for the 12 year period from 1986 to 1998, tomato sauce was found to be the most protective. Compared with eating tomato sauce less than once per month, eating at least 2 servings each week reduced the risk of disease by 23%.
Men aren’t the only ones who can benefit from eating more tomates. Observational studies hae shown high dietary intakes and high blood levels of lycopene are associated with a lower risk of colon and pancreatic cancers. Preliminary studies also suggest that lycopene-rich vegetables such as tomatoes might guard against cancers of the lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, cervix and skin.
Tomatoes and Heart Disease: Tomatoes might also have cardio-protective properties. In a 7 year study of almost 40,000 women, higher intakes of lycopene rich foods were linked with fewer heart attacks and strokes. Compared with women consuming fewer than 1.5 servings of tomato based products per week, a weekly intake of at least 7 servings reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by roughly 30%. Among tomato based foods, tomato sauce and pizza offered the most protection.
It is not just the lycopene in tomatoes that provide health benefits. Researchers are learning that it is the mixture of nutrients and phytochemicals that do the trick, including, lycopene. It appears that all the healthy ingredients in tomatoes work in synergy to confer disease fighting powers. For instance, tomatoes contain many nutrients linked to heart health, such as potassium, folate, and vitamin B6. Diets rich in potassium have been shown to lower blood pressure. Folate and vitamin B6 are needed to convert a potentially harmful compound, homocysteine, to benign molecules. Homocysteine is an amino acid in the bloodstream that can accumulate and damage blood vessels walls. Numerous studies have liked elevated homcysteine levels with a greater risk of heart attack and stroke.