When it comes to antioxidants, lycopene is lesser known than other nutrients and phytonutrients. Perhaps you'd like to learn more about the health benefits of lycopene after discovering it on the ingredients list of your supplement or after hearing your nutrition-obsessed friend explain her latest antioxidant-rich salad recipe. Introducing lycopene to your everyday life can yield meaningful results—please, allow us to divulge you.
What is lycopene?
Lycopene is a carotenoid found in red, pink, and orange produce—especially red tomatoes. Like all carotenoids, lycopene is a powerful phytonutrient (aka plant nutrient) with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.*
Lycopene can be found in fresh or canned fruits and vegetables, as well as snacks that have been sun-dried—though it's worth noting any food that has had its skin and/or seeds removed will contain less lycopene.
Thermal inputs (heat) used to process tomatoes into tomato products actually increases the bioavailability of lycopene. Additionally, eating some fat with or around the time of your lycopene consumption is a win win, since this carotenoid is intrinsically lipid soluble.
You may also find lycopene in high-quality supplement formulas at milligram amounts (beware of sprinkling at microgram levels).
Health benefits of lycopene.
Lycopene benefits a number of physiological systems in the body—including your eyes, heart, skin, and more.*
Lycopene is one of the most potent plant-derived antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables. It can help protect DNA, proteins, and lipids from oxidation and promotes cellular resilience and longevity by scavenging free radicals—thus, promoting redox balance.* Antioxidants help balance oxidative stress activity, creating cellular harmony in the body (and lycopene is particularly good at its job).*
Clinical research has demonstrated heart-healthy effects for lycopene intake via foods (tomatoes specifically) and targeted supplementation.* Consuming tomatoes and tomato products has yielded cardioprotective benefits, specifically, improving LDL-cholesterol, cytokine, and blood flow, while lycopene supplementation has been shown to promote a healthy systolic blood pressure.*
"High dietary intake of lycopene has been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular health,"* explains registered dietitian Jess Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN. She adds that there has been a lot of research on lycopene's ability to improve heart health in both men and women with focused cardiovascular health-support needs.*
At some point, you've probably been told to use a topical vitamin C or antioxidant serum on your skin to slow down natural aging and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. As it turns out, researchers have found that lycopene and beta-carotene are the main carotenoids (aka antioxidants) found in both skin and plasma, which explains why they're often used in skin care products.
In addition to healthy aging and skin love, concentrated doses of lycopene also improve the body's ability to protect itself from the sun.* If you're wondering if loading up on tomatoes during summertime is a natural replacement for sunblock, it's important to note that lycopene offers minimal sun protection (we're talking less than 2 SPF). "Lycopene has been shown to be helpful in protecting against sun exposure, but not to the degree where it could be considered a substitute for sunscreen and/or staying out of the sun,"* Cording specifies.
Eye health benefits
You've probably heard that carrots are good for your eyes at some point. As it turns out, beta-carotene doesn't have a monopoly on that health benefit, and there's another carotenoid in town. Yes, lycopene (and lutein and zeaxanthin) promotes eye health and visual acuity.*
Remember, lycopene has anti-inflammatory properties and reduces oxidative stress, which both contribute to the health and function of our eyes.* Additionally, lycopene has been shown to support vision in aging adults—so you can add this carotenoid to your longevity toolbox!*
Brain health benefits
Evidence shows that lycopene and other carotenoids play supporting roles in brain health and neuroprotection.* Research indicates that lycopene can promote cognition and memory, largely due to its antioxidant properties and ability to reduce oxidative stress in tissue.* Its neuroprotective effects also include helping to balance levels of cytokines (proteins that signal the immune system).*
Higher dietary intake of lycopene is associated with cognitive health maintenance while aging, and many studies demonstrate this phytonutrient helps balance oxidative stress as we age as well (another reason to add lycopene to your longevity toolbox).*
Bone health benefits
Nutritional studies show diets high in fruits and vegetables—particularly antioxidant-rich produce—have a positive effect on bone mineral status. Specific studies on lycopene reveal that increased lycopene intake results in increased total-body bone mineral content (BMC) and bone mineral density (BMD)—two imaging measures of bone health.* While sufficient bone mineral density is important at all ages, lycopene is an especially important phytonutrient early in life and through early adulthood (when bone accrual is at its peak), as well as later in life to keep bones strong and healthy.*
Sources of lycopene.
When it comes to food, lycopene is potent in a number of red- and pink-hued fruits and vegetables. Dietitian Leslie Bonci, MPH, R.D., LDN, loves incorporating lycopene into her diet through tomatoes and tomato products, as well as pink grapefruits, blood oranges, papaya, pink guava, red carrots, and red peppers. When asked for her recommendations, Cording added persimmons and red cabbage to the list.
In addition to dietary sources, lycopene can be found in certain supplements, by itself or in multi-ingredient formulas (sometimes even in premium multivitamins). As nutrition scientist Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, previously shared with mbg, "Lycopene is an eager scavenger of free radicals, an action that has global significance in the body, across multiple organ systems, every day. And in mbg's multi, our lycopene is extracted naturally and with care from red tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum)."*
If you're ready to tackle the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties it offers, the multifaceted health benefits of lycopene are compelling enough to incorporate it into your daily supplementation routine.*
While Cording says there's no official recommendation (like we have for carb, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals) on the amount of lycopene a person should consume in a day, she notes that "current studies have shown benefits from about eight to 21 milligrams per day." Ferira adds, "Just like with any nutrient or phytonutrient, the dosing for lycopene is specific to the health area studied. But it's definitely playing in the 5-plus milligram range."*
Cording also warns that people who are taking calcium supplements should be aware that a concentrated dose of this macromineral (e.g., 500 milligrams) may decrease the absorption and bioavailability of lycopene when taken around the same time.
Side effects of lycopene.
There are no negative side effects associated with lycopene from the diet. However, due to lycopene's potential to interfere with certain medications, it's always wise to consult your health care provider before switching up your supplement routine.
The bottom line.
If you're looking for a low-lift and carotenoid-rich way to support your health and well-being, consuming foods and/or supplements with lycopene just might be the way to go.* For a high-quality, health-expert-vetted multivitamin that also provides a bouquet of antioxidant-rich botanicals (including carotenoids like lycopene), mbg's ultimate multivitamin+ addresses your daily nutritional needs (plus the added perk of longevity support) and then some.*
Brittany Loggins is a freelance writer covering health, wellness, and all things lifestyle. She spent time on staff at CBSNews.com and TODAY.com, where she wrote about everything from breaking news to the best scented candles. Brittany is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a Bachelor’s degree in consumer journalism—and you can still find her cheering on the Bulldogs every single chance she gets.