Research Team Powers Up Tomatoes to Help Fight Disease

Most of us know that tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a powerful anti-oxidant that helps fight cancer and other disease. According to Steven Schwartz, an investigator in Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor of food science and technology at Ohio State, his team has found a way to “power-up” the delivery of lycopene found in tomatoes. The result is a boost in the level of disease fighting lycopene in the blood stream. The trick, according the Schwartz is by “processing it and heating it in combination with added oil, we can change the shape of the molecule so it is configured in this bent form”…”a case where processing is positive in terms of enhancing absorption of lycopene.”

The scientists observed that when lycopene circulates in the human body, it is in a cis-isomer configuration, or a bent form. A red tomato is naturally in an all-trans configuration, displaying a linear form. Previous studies have shown that eating carotenoid rich foods, in conjunction with fat, increases the absorption of beneficial nutrients, but scientists haven’t understood exactly how that occurs. By heating the tomatoes and adding fat, the tomato molecules bend, making it easier for them to be absorbed. The researchers point out that fat is an important component of their recipe because tiny droplets of fat aid digestion.

Two sauces were used in the study, prepared the same, and using corn oil. The difference was one of the sauces underwent a second heating process at 260 degrees F for 40 minutes. The extra-heat provided nine times more cis-isomers than the regularly processed sauce. The twelve participants involved in the study underwent blood sampling seven times during a 9 1/2 hour period to measure their lycopene levels, and all ate both sauces. When compared to those who ate the regularly prepared sauce, lycopene levels were 55% higher.

Dr. Schwartz says, “Some people like to cook tomato sauce for prolonged periods, sometimes reheating it day after day, because it tastes better on the second and third day. They add fat by using oil or meat, and that’s going to start to induce cis-isomers of lycopene if fat is present and the cooking continues. So it’s possible people could induce this process and increase lycopene absorption by routine food preparation procedures, as well.”

The message is clear – take time preparing your meals. Trading traditional methods of food preparation in order to save time in the kitchen isn’t entirely to our advantage. Proponents of better nutrition repeatedly tell us to ditch the microwaves, but every new home comes with a built-in. Disease prevention through nutrition is nothing new, and the current study re-emphasizes it’s value.


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