They are heaven on a burger and superstars in a sauce. But succulent tomatoes are far more than just a delicious fruit. Eating tomatoes may also help lower your risk of stroke, likely due to the lycopene they contain.
Lycopene is a carotenoid—a family of pigments that give fruits and vegetables their brilliant red, orange, and yellow coloring. Lycopene is also a powerful antioxidant that eliminates dangerous free radicals that can damage DNA and other fragile cell structures.
“The shape of the lycopene molecule makes it very effective in being able to quench free radicals,” says Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We don’t really understand it entirely yet, but lycopene may have specific properties that protect the cell in a way other antioxidants may not.”
Past research, some of it done by Dr. Giovannucci, has shown that a diet rich in lycopene-containing foods may help lower the risk of prostate and other cancers. Now, in a report just published in the journal Neurology, a team of Finnish researchers has linked lycopene levels in the blood to stroke protection. They made this connection after following more than a thousand middle-aged men for 12 years. Men with the greatest amounts of lycopene in their blood had a 55% lower chance of having any kind of stroke. The lycopene connection was even stronger (59%) when it came to protecting against strokes due to blood clots (the most common kind).
The finding came as a surprise—the researchers initially wanted to know if other antioxidants affected strokes, such as alpha carotene, beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E. But they didn’t.