Health effects of lycopene, a carotenoid found mainly from tomato products

Lycopene is one of the major carotenoids in the Western diet and is probably one of the protective factors in the vegetable rich diet. It's a red color pigment and in contrast to most other carotenoids which are widely distributed among great variety of fruits and vegetables, the intake of lycopene comes predominantly from tomatoes and tomato products. Interest in lycopene is growing rapidly following the recent publication of epidemiologic studies which associated high circulating lycopene concentration with reductions in cardiovascular diseases (CVD). Lycopene has unique structural and chemical features that may contribute to its specific biological properties. Antioxidant properties of lycopene are quite resistant to heat and cooking and bioavailability of lycopene in processed tomato products is higher than in unprocessed fresh tomatoes.

Lycopene is an antioxidant carotenoid without provitamin A activity and has been shown to be more potent antioxidant than other common dietary carotenoids, alfa- or beta-carotene. The oxidation protecting effects of lycopene and tomatoes have been shown in both human and animal studies. A decreased oxidative modification of LDL may be one of the mechanisms by which lycopene could reduce the risk of CVD and atherosclerotic progression.

Our results and research interests

The purposes of our previous works have been to study the role of blood levels of lycopene with regard to cardiovascular health in women and men living in eastern Finland. We first examined the association between the plasma concentration of lycopene and the intima-media thickness of common carotid artery wall (CCA-IMT) in a cross-sectional analysis of Antioxidant Supplementation in the Atherosclerosis Prevention (ASAP) Study in 520 high risk men and women. Low plasma levels (lower than the median) of lycopene were associated with an 18% increased intima-media thickness in men, compared with men whose plasma levels of lycopene were higher. In women, the difference was not significant. Next we examined the association between serum levels of lycopene and CCA-IMT in 1028 middle-aged men in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study. We found that in men with low serum levels of lycopene (lowest quarter) the adjusted CCA-IMT had a significant increment in both mean CCA-IMT and maximal CCA-IMT as compared with the other men. In the KIHD study we examined the role of serum levels of lycopene with regard to the risk of acute coronary events and ischemic strokes. The subjects were 725 middle-aged men free of coronary heart disease and stroke at the study baseline. We found that men with a low serum level of lycopene (the lowest quarter) had an over three-fold risk of an acute coronary event or stroke as compared with others.

In conclusion, these findings support the convention that increased lycopene intake may have a protective role in prevention of CVD and contribute to cardiovascular health. Hence, circulating levels of lycopene, a biomarker of tomato-rich food, may play a role in early stages of atherogenesis and have clinical and public health relevance.






More information about our studies: tiina.rissanen at

Sari Voutilainen et al. Carotenoids and cardiovascular health. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;83:1265-71.

Rissanen TH. Association of lycopene and dietary intake of fruits, berries and vegetables with atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases. Epidemiologic Evidence. Doctoral dissertation. 2003. Kuopio University Publications D. Medical Sciences 304. 72 p.

Rissanen T, Voutilainen S, Nyyssönen K, Salonen JT. Lycopene, atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. Exp Biol Med, 2002;227:900-907.

Rissanen T, Voutilainen S, Nyyssönen K, Salonen R, Kaplan GA, Salonen JT. Serum lycopene level and carotid atherosclerosis: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003;77:133-138.

Rissanen T, Voutilainen S, Nyyssönen K, Salonen R, Salonen JT. Low plasma lycopene concentration is associated with increased intima-media thickness of the carotid artery wall. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology 2000;20:2677-2681.

Rissanen T, Voutilainen S, Nyyssönen K, Lakka TA, Salonen R, Kaplan GA, Salonen JT. Low serum lycopene is associated with excess risk of acute coronary events and stroke: The Kuopio Ischaemic Risk Factor Study. British Journal of Nutrition 2001;85:749-754.