Most often paired with images of plump, vine-ripened tomatoes, lycopene is a nutrient that holds promise as a wonderful antioxidant. Lycopene belongs to the carotenoid family, which includes beta-carotene, lutein and zeanthin. Like its kin, lycopene intake seems to greatly benefit the body.

A red pigment, lycopene is commonly found in fruits and vegetables of that hue. It may be the most abundant nutrient of the carotenoid family related to prostate health [Source: Borek]. For prevention, a higher intake of lycopene shows greater benefit [Source: Giovannucci]. Further studies have demonstrated higher fruit and vegetable intake, which in turn increases lycopene intake, helps lower prostate cancer risk [Source: Smith-Warner].

As a treatment for prostate cancer, supplemental lycopene didn’t show major benefit [Source: Jatoi]. However, another study has shown patients taking 15 mg of supplemental lycopene, three weeks before surgery to remove the prostate, had improvements in cancerous lesions and decreases in the PSA score (a blood test used to monitor prostate cancer) [Source: Kucuk].

Research of various vitamins, including A and E, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, showed that higher levels of these nutrients in the body, lycopene and beta-carotene in particular, significantly protected against breast cancer [Source: Sato]. In mice, lycopene has shown protection against the development of breast tumors [Source: Nagasawa]. Animal research is also showing benefit to lung cancer.

Lycopene also shows benefit for the blood vessels around the heart, demonstrating protection to the blood vessels in the neck, better than vitamins A, E or CoQ10. This isn’t much of a surprise since lycopene is regarded as a powerful antioxidant. Higher levels of lycopene have also shown protection against heart attack [Source: Kohlmeier]. Tomato paste, a tremendous source of this nutrient, has demonstrated some protection against the development of cardiovascular disease [Source: Sesso]. For protection from heart disease in women, lycopene shows greater protection than the other carotenoid nutrients.

Aside from the popular tomato, other sources of lycopene include red grapefruit, watermelon and apricots. Given the high frequency of prostate cancer, all men should make an effort to take in these foods daily. Patients with a personal or family history of heart disease should also add these items for prevention.

Lycopene as a supplement can be considered as part of a nutritional program, but most studies suggest the food source is the optimal way to deliver this antioxidant to the body tissues. This is true for most vitamins. Multiple studies have demonstrated higher consumption of tomato products producing higher levels of lycopene [Source: Wu, Campbell]. Nutritionists note that heating the tomato with olive oil or consuming products like tomato paste or sauce actually makes the lycopene more absorbable.

Commonly included in multivitamins, the dosage for lycopene as a supplement is typically 10 mg daily for health maintenance. This fat soluble vitamin should be taken with meals so that it can be absorbed more easily. Dosages used for prostate cancer go up to 30 mg daily. This can be done in divided doses. Please remember, lycopene should not be used alone as a treatment for prostate cancer, but may, especially in the form of food, offer at least some benefit to both a healthy or diseased prostate. It is generally tolerated very well. One study did note that subjects could experience abdominal effects like bloating, indigestion and nausea [Source: Jatoi].

How do I know if a red fruit or vegetable contains lycopene?

From all of my sources, the big player is far and away the tomato, with over 80 percent of lycopene ingestion coming from them. Other common sources are watermelon and pink grapefruit. Is it possible that anything red has some degree of lycopene, sure, but I would focus on incorporating tomato products regularly.