What Is Lycopene?

A Compound That Could Prevent Certain Diseases

Tomatoes, tomato sauce, and lycopene capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

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Lycopene is a natural compound that is found in fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, watermelon, and grapefruit. Lycopene is a carotenoid, which are yellow, orange, or red pigments that give this color to its plants. Lycopene has been linked to a few health benefits, including a reduced risk of certain diseases.

Tomatoes are a primary source of lycopene in the American diet. Generally, higher amounts of lycopene are found in processed (cooked) tomato products. Additionally, lycopene is fat-soluble, meaning it gets absorbed in the body when eaten with.

By consuming a moderate amount of fat (10–15 grams) with your high-lycopene foods, you can increase the amount of lycopene that's being absorbed. For example, you could add 1 tablespoon of olive oil dressing to your tomato salad or cooked sauces to accomplish this.

Dietary supplements are not regulated in the United States, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve them for safety and effectiveness before products are marketed. When possible, choose a supplement that has been tested by a trusted third party, such as USP, ConsumerLabs, or NSF.

Keep in mind, though, that even if supplements are third-party tested, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily safe for all or effective in general. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and to check in about any potential interactions with other supplements or medications.

Supplement Facts

  • Active Ingredient(s): Lycopene
  • Alternate Name(s): ψ,ψ-Carotene
  • Legal Status: “Grandfathered” dietary ingredient (legally marketed before 1994)
  • Suggested Dose: No formal recommendation for lycopene intake. Commonly studied: two to 75 milligrams per day (duration: one to six months)
  • Safety Considerations: Lycopenemia, premature labor in pregnant people

Uses of Lycopene

One of the biggest benefits of lycopene is that it is an antioxidant and protects the body from free radical stress that can damage DNA and other cell structures.

The antioxidant properties help balance free radical activity in the body and, in doing so, may reduce the risk of certain diseases. For example, there's emerging evidence that lycopene has a role in supporting the health of your bones.

While there may be additional benefits of lycopene related to heart health and cancer prevention, there's not enough evidence to support these benefits at this time.

Bone Health

There is growing evidence that lycopene has the ability to help maintain bone strength. In a clinical study, lycopene was shown to affect bone metabolism (the constant production and breakdown of bone tissue). The authors found that lycopene changed the activity of multiple genes that support bone density, which provides strength to bones.

Additionally, the authors carried out a low-quality pilot (small-scale) study with 68 women. The study supported that supplementation of tomato sauce, which is high in lycopene, can help retain bone strength. This research is exciting, but larger studies are needed to confirm these results.

Cancer

Lycopene is an antioxidant. In theory, antioxidants could protect against cancer by preventing damage to DNA and cell structures. Unfortunately, the current research on lycopene is too limited in quality to ensure that lycopene decreases cancer risk.

Research has shown that higher lycopene levels strongly correlate (have a mutual relationship) with a reduced risk for prostate cancer. For example, a meta-analysis (a merging of findings from many studies) showed that participants who reported higher lycopene intake and had higher blood levels of lycopene were at lower risk of prostate cancer.

Also, as lycopene intake and levels in the blood increased, cancer risk decreased further. This has also been found to be true in epidemiological studies (studies on human populations) of lycopene intake and a reduced risk of head and neck cancers.

However, there's currently no evidence that the lycopene itself is directly causing this reduced risk. For example, it's known that eating more fruits and vegetables overall is associated with a reduced risk of cancer. Other behaviors that support health may also coincidentally occur in people who eat enough lycopene.

To illustrate, studies have shown that those who eat more fruits and vegetables are also less likely to drink alcohol. Drinking more alcohol than the recommended daily amounts has increased the risk of certain types of cancer.

High-quality research is needed to show that lycopene and its antioxidant abilities can directly impact the development of prostate and other cancers.

Heart and Vascular Health

Higher lycopene intake and blood levels correlate with a reduced risk for stroke. However, there's little evidence that lycopene is directly causing this reduced risk.

It's essential to manage blood pressure and cholesterol well to support good heart and vascular (cardiovascular) health. There's mixed research on whether there could be an effect from lycopene for these conditions. A meta-analysis from 2020 confirmed that existing research does not support a relationship between lycopene and blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

However, more evidence is emerging that supports lycopene's role in keeping blood vessels healthy. In a clinical study, lycopene benefited endothelial function. "Endothelial function" refers to a set of factors related to the health of the inner lining of blood vessels. Interestingly, this improvement was only seen in people with cardiovascular disease, not in healthy participants.

There will need to be more research in this area before we can be sure whether lycopene has benefits for cardiovascular health or not.

Other Uses

Lycopene has also been studied for use in:

  • Oral leukoplakia (mouth lesions)
  • Metabolic syndrome (collection of symptoms—high blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, excess body fat around the waist—that may increase disease risk)

More study is needed, however, before recommendations may be made for use of lycopene for these conditions.

What Are the Side Effects of Lycopene?

Though lycopene has health benefits, it can still cause undesirable effects. There is, however, limited research on the side effects of lycopene.

If you do not feel well after taking lycopene, stop the supplement and reach out to your healthcare provider.

Common Side Effects

Lycopenemia: Eating or supplementing with large amounts of lycopene could lead to a condition called lycopenemia. Lycopenemia results in an orange or red discoloration of the skin and resolves after eating a diet low in lycopene. It's considered to be relatively harmless.

Precautions

Premature birth: If you're pregnant, lycopene supplementation may contribute to preterm labor and a low-birthweight baby. Avoid lycopene supplementation if you're pregnant unless recommended by your healthcare provider.

Breastfeeding: Lycopene transfers from breast milk to babies. There is currently not enough research on the effects of lycopene supplementation on breastfed babies. Supplementation of lycopene should be avoided unless discussed with your healthcare provider and your child's pediatrician.

Surgery: Lycopene may inhibit blood clotting, increasing the risk of bleeding during and after surgery. Stop lycopene supplementation at least two weeks before surgery and discuss lycopene supplementation with your surgeon.

Dosage: How Much Lycopene Should I Take?

Always speak with a healthcare provider before taking a supplement to ensure that the supplement and dosage is appropriate for your individual needs.

While there is not a formal recommendation for lycopene intake, 2–75 milligrams per day has been commonly studied and proven safe. The length of use in studies is usually one to six months. Lower doses are less likely to cause the benign skin condition, lycopenemia, discussed above.

What Happens If I Take Too Much Lycopene?

There are no known immediate side effects of taking too much lycopene. With long-term lycopene supplementation, you may develop the benign skin condition lycopenemia. This results in a yellow or orange skin tone that resolves after following a diet lower in lycopene.

Interactions

Be aware that lycopene competes with other carotenoids for absorption into the gut. Therefore, taking a lycopene supplement with lutein, beta-carotene, or another carotenoid supplement, may result in decreased absorption. Other supplements, such as calcium, can also reduce absorption.

Antiplatelets: Lycopene may inhibit blood clotting, which could increase the risk of bleeding during and after surgery. Use caution when using lycopene with other medicines, including herbal preparations and plant-based medicines.

Anorectic drugs: Theoretically, drugs that decrease food consumption (anorectic drugs) overall may decrease lycopene intake.

Lipase inhibitors: Lipase inhibitors, which decrease fat absorption, may also impact your body's ability to absorb lycopene.

How to Store Lycopene

Lycopene should be stored at room temperature and away from direct sunlight. Most containers block ultraviolet (UV) light to protect the supplement from damage.

Similar Supplements

Supplements similar to lycopene include:

Beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin are carotenoids and antioxidants like lycopene. However, they are found in different foods. For example, beta-carotene is well-known for giving carrots their orange color and is also found in sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and many other foods. Lutein and zeaxanthin are mainly found in dark green vegetables.

Beta-carotene is actually converted into another antioxidant, vitamin A, in the body. Vitamin A can generally be found in the same foods as beta-carotene. Vitamins E and C are also common antioxidants in our diet. Vitamin E, also known as tocopherol, is found in a variety of foods, including almonds, sunflower seeds, avocado, and tomatoes. Vitamin C is well-known for its presence in citrus fruits but is also in tomatoes and many other foods.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much lycopene is in a tomato?

    A fresh medium-sized tomato has about 3.2 milligrams of lycopene.

  • How much lycopene is in watermelon?

    A cup of wedged watermelon contains about 13 milligrams of lycopene.

  • How much lycopene is in tomato paste?

    About 2 tablespoons (33 grams) of tomato paste contains about 25 milligrams of lycopene.

Sources of Lycopene and What to Look For

Whole foods should be the preferred source of lycopene, as they contain additional nutrients that may work together with lycopene to provide health benefits. For example, tomatoes contain various other antioxidants in addition to lycopene, which together may give the food its health-promoting power.

Further, while lycopene alone has not been proven to reduce cholesterol, having a good amount of fiber in the diet can. While fiber can be found in a tomato, it won't be found in a lycopene supplement.

Food Sources of Lycopene

Lycopene is found in a variety of foods, most having the trademark orange or red hue that lycopene provides. Foods to look for with the highest amounts of lycopene are watermelon, tomatoes, grapefruit, papaya, and mangoes.

Certain tomato products, including sun-dried tomato and tomato paste, are very potent sources. Other foods can also add a little lycopene to your diet, such as asparagus, persimmons, and red bell peppers.

Supplement Forms

Different types of lycopene supplements exist that you should be aware of when you head to the store.

Lycopene may be sold in a "synthetic" form, which means that it was created in a lab. There are also "extracted" forms of lycopene, which means chemistry is used to remove it from a food source, such as a tomato. Lycopene from both sources appears to act the same once they are in your body.

There is a third type of supplement that is referred to as a "standardized tomato extract," which contains lycopene in addition to other nutrients that occur in tomatoes. This typically includes the antioxidants vitamin E (tocopherol) and vitamin A among other nutrients.

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Additional Reading

By Brandon Petrovich, RD
& peer-reviewed author with over five years of work in nutrition and healthcare.

Originally written by
Colleen Travers
Colleen Travers writes about health, fitness, travel, parenting, and women’s lifestyle for various publications and brands.
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