Lycopene is a bioactive component, packed with biological assets that are great for the human body. It is found in  tomatoes, watermelons ,  pink grapefruits, apricots, and pink guavas. The amount of lycopene in a tomato varies according to its variety and ripeness, and can range from 30 to over 70 mg of lycopene per kg of fresh ripe tomatoes.

Lycopene is a member of the  carotenoid family, just like beta-carotene. Unlike the latter, however, lycopene is not converted into vitamin A by our body, so it is referred to as a “non-provitamin A carotenoid”.

The human body is unable to synthesise lycopene and therefore it can only be introduced into our systems by diet, mainly (about 80%) through the consumption of tomatoes or tomato-based products (sauces, juices, concentrates, etc).

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant, and many studies have proven its positive effects in the prevention of various illnesses including cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Although there is still not enough scientific evidence to be able to recommend a specific daily amount of lycopene, this carotenoid is definitely one of the most important bioactive molecules.

Generally, bioactive molecules have low bioavailability, which means that our body is only able to absorb a small amount of the bioactive compounds we take in through our food. Bioavailability is also limited when consuming lycopene by means of fresh tomatoes or tomato juice. But if the tomato comes as a puree, or concentrated, the bioavailability of lycopene increases significantly as a consequence of the different food processing stages.

So, lycopene is a strange and unique example, since it is better to consume tomatoes that are not raw, but actually cooked and processed. But whether your tomatoes are raw or cooked, the bioavailability of lycopene increases further if the fresh fruit or tomato sauce is eaten with oil, as is typically the case in the Mediterranean diet.

Alessandra Bordoni
Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences
University of Bologna