10/23/2012 – Beth Fontenot, MS, RD, LDN – Tomatoes are the most widely-consumed fruits and vegetables around. They are also our most significant source of the phytochemical, lycopene. A new study suggests that this most frequently consumed, non-starchy red fruit – or vegetable – and products made from it could help to lower the risk of stroke. (The tomato is a vegetable per USDA classification, but is botanically classified as a fruit.)
Researchers in Finland tested levels of lycopene in over 1,000 men between the ages of 46 and 65. The men were followed for an average of 12 years, and during that time 67 of them suffered a stroke.
Lycopene absorption is also greater when some type of fat or oil is included with the tomato product, thus the benefit of using a little olive oil when making spaghetti sauce.
When the researchers looked at the bottom half, 258 men who had the lowest levels of lycopene, 25 of them had had a stroke. Among the 259 men with the highest levels of lycopene, only 11 of the 259 had suffered a stroke. Men with the highest levels of lycopene had a 59 percent decreased risk of stroke as compared to those with the lowest levels of lycopene.
“This study adds to the evidence that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of stroke. The results support the recommendation that people get more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, which could likely lead to a major reduction in the number of strokes worldwide, according to previous research,” said study author Jouni Karppi in a statement.
The study also looked at blood levels of other antioxidants, but found no link between the blood levels of those and the risk of stroke.
Lycopene is a phytochemical found in red fruits and vegetables. It is a powerful antioxidant that appears to protect against diseases by neutralizing free radicals in the body. High levels of lycopene in the blood correlate with a reduced risk for many diseases. The human body is unable to produce lycopene so it must be obtained from plant foods.
While early studies on tomatoes focused on the presence of lycopene and its antioxidant activity in cancer prevention, new research is exploring the possibility that tomatoes may also protect against heart disease, osteoporosis, sun-induced skin damage, and now stroke.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are usually considered nutritionally superior over processed foods, but the heat required for cooking and processing canned tomato products increases the body’s ability to use lycopene. Lycopene absorption is also greater when some type of fat or oil is included with the tomato product, thus the benefit of using a little olive oil when making spaghetti sauce.
Most Americans do not consume the recommended 2 ½ cups of vegetables a day. While tomatoes are certainly not the only vegetable/fruit with health benefits, they are a food that most people like, whether it is in the form of spaghetti or pizza sauce, salsa, or in a dish like okra and tomatoes.
The study was published in the journal, Neurology.