Photo © Steven Foster
Lycopene is derived from the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum, in the nightshade family, Solanaceae), a perennial that produces during the warm season and reaches a height of 3 to 4 feet.1 The tomato is native to western South America, and is currently grown and consumed worldwide.2,3 Lycopene is the most powerful antioxidant of the carotenoids, pigments that determine the color of fruits and vegetables.4 Hence lycopene is responsible for the red color of the tomato.5
History and Cultural Significance
Tomatoes were grown and harvested as early as 700 C.E. by the Aztecs and Incas.4 During the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadors brought the tomato plant north to Central America and Mexico.4 Europeans took tomato seeds back to Europe and the tomato became popular in the countries of Italy, Portugal, and Spain.4 The tomato has been called many names including the “apple of paradise” by Germans, the “love apple” by the French, “golden apple” by Italian herbalist Mattioli, and even “unhealthy fruit”.2,3,4 The British believed the tomato was poisonous because of its bright red color and close relationship to the very toxic nightshade plant.2,4 Early in the 19th century the tomato began being used in cooking and eventually became one of the most popular edible fruits in the United States.4,5,6
Lycopene is used externally as a common ingredient in sunblocks and anti-aging products. It is also used internally as an antioxidant.
Studies have been done on the external use of lycopene as potential protection against ultraviolet light skin damage and other antioxidant uses for the skin.7,8 Lycopene is also being researched for a potential internal use as a skin protectant that could help prevent skin cancer and damage that causes skin aging.9 Ongoing research is being performed on lycopene and combinations of substances and vitamins including lycopene for the prevention of many types of cancer and other potential antioxidant uses. Some studies indicate lycopene may have beneficial effects on the heart, including possible reduction in coronary heart disease and heart attack.5
Tomatoes are currently being grown, harvested, and eaten worldwide. The only limitation to growing tomatoes outdoors is their inability to withstand spring and fall freezes in certain regions.1 Commercial cultivation of tomatoes throughout the year in warm climates allows them to be available year round.4
1 Wolford R, Banks D. Tomato. Urban Programs Resource Network. University of Illinois Extension website. Available at: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/tomato1.html. Accessed October 11, 2004.
2 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company; 1996.
3 Davidson A. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 1999.
4 California Tomatoes. California Tomato Commission website. Available at: www.tomato.org. Accessed October 11, 2004.
5 DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA (editors). The Review of Natural Products: The Most Complete Source of Natural Product Information. 3rd edition. St. Louis, Mo: Facts and Comparisons, 2002.
6 Tomato. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia website. Available at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato#Early_history. Accessed October 11, 2004.
7 Fazekas Z, Gao D, Saladi RN, Lu Y, Lebwohl M, Wei H. Protective effects of lycopene against ultraviolet B-induced photodamage[abstract]. Nutr Cancer. 2003;47(2):181-187.
8 Andreassi M, Stanghellini E, Ettorre A, Di Stefani A, Andreassi L. Antioxidant activity of topically applied lycopene[abstract]. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. January 2004;18(1):52-55.
9 Cesarini JP, Michel L, Maurette JM, Adhoute H, Bejot M. Immediate effects of UV radiation on the skin: modification by an antioxidant complex containing carotenoids[abstract]. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. August 2003;19(4):182-189.