Unique tomatoes tops in disease-fighting antioxidants

Feb 27, 2007

Deep red tomatoes get their rich color from lycopene, a disease-fighting antioxidant. A new study, however, suggests that a special variety of orange-colored tomatoes provide a different form of lycopene, one that our bodies may more readily use.

Researchers found that eating spaghetti covered in sauce made from these orange tomatoes, called Tangerine tomatoes, caused a noticeable boost in this form of lycopene in participants' blood.

"While red tomatoes contain far more lycopene than orange tomatoes, most of it is in a form that the body doesn't absorb well," said Steven Schwartz, the study's lead author and a professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University.

"The people in the study actually consumed less lycopene when they ate sauce made from the orange tomatoes, but they absorbed far more lycopene than they would have if it had come from red tomatoes," he said. "That's what is so dramatic about it."

The tomatoes used for this work were developed specifically for the study – these particular varieties aren't readily available in grocery stores. The researchers suggest that interested consumers seek out orange- and gold-colored heirloom tomatoes as an alternative to Tangerine tomatoes, but caution that they haven't tested how much or what kind of lycopene these varieties contain.

Lycopene belongs to a family of antioxidants called the carotenoids, which give certain fruits and vegetables their distinctive colors. Carotenoids are thought to have a number of health benefits, such as reducing the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration.

"The tomato is a wonderful biosynthetic factory for carotenoids, and scientists are working on ways to enhance the fruit's antioxidant content and composition," Schwartz continued.

The findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Lycopene is a carotenoid that contains a variety of related compounds called isomers. Isomers share the same chemical formula, yet differ in chemical structure. In the case of tomatoes, the different lycopene isomers play a part in determining the color of the fruit.

Several years ago, Schwartz and his colleagues discovered the abundance of several of these isomers, called cis- lycopenes, in human blood. But most of the tomatoes and tomato-based products we currently consume are rich in all-trans­-lycopene.

"We don't know why our bodies seem to transform lycopene into cis-isomers, or if some isomers are more beneficial than others," Schwartz said.

The researchers don't know if tomatoes rich in cis-lycopene would provide greater health benefits to humans, but the study's results suggest that tomatoes can be used to increase both the intake and absorption of the health-beneficial compounds.

The researchers made spaghetti sauce from two tomato varieties – tangerine tomatoes, which get their name from their orange skin and are high in cis-lycopene, and a tomato variety chosen for its rich beta carotene content.

The tomatoes were grown at an Ohio State-affiliated agricultural research station in northwestern Ohio. Following harvest, both tomato varieties were immediately processed into canned tomato juice and concentrated. Italian seasoning was added for taste.

The 12 adults participating in the study ate two spaghetti test meals – one included sauce made from tangerine tomatoes, while the other featured sauce made from the tomatoes high in beta carotene. The participants were asked to avoid tomato and beta carotene-rich foods for 13 days before eating each test meal.

Researchers drew blood right before each participant ate and again every hour or two up to 10 hours after the meal. They analyzed the blood samples for lycopene and beta carotene content.

Lycopene absorption from the tangerine tomatoes was 2.5 times higher than that absorbed from the beta carotene-rich tomatoes and, Schwartz said, from typical red tomato varieties. Cis-lycopene levels spiked around five hours after eating the tangerine tomato sauce, and at this point during absorption the levels were some 200 times greater than those of trans-lycopene, which were nearly non-existent. While cis-lycopene is by far the most abundant isomer in these tomatoes, they do contain trace amounts of trans-lycopene.

The participants' bodies also readily absorbed beta carotene from the beta carotene-rich tomatoes.

"Right now, only carrots and sweet potatoes are a more readily available, richer source of beta carotene," Schwartz said. "And this carotenoid is a major source of vitamin A for a large proportion of the world's population. Its deficiency is a serious health problem in many developing countries.

"Our study showed that a tomato can also increase beta carotene levels in the blood," Schwartz said. While these special tomatoes were grown just for this study, the researchers have pre-commercial lines of both varieties available.

He conducted the study with Ohio State colleagues David Francis, an associate professor of horticulture and crop science; Steven Clinton, an associate professor of hematology and oncology and human nutrition; Nuray Unlu, a former postdoctoral researcher in food science; and Torsten Bohn, a former postdoctoral fellow in food science at Ohio State.

Source: Ohio State University

Explore further: Growing a blood vessel in a week

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers uncover tomato's genetic history

Oct 14, 2014

Two years after the sequencing of the genome of one variety of tomato, scientists have sequenced the genomes of 360 tomato varieties. By analyzing the relationships among these genomes, Sanwen Huang of the ...

Wild tomato species focus of antioxidant study

Oct 09, 2014

Tomatoes are known to be rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C, lycopene, β-carotene, and phenolics. Antioxidants, substances capable of delaying or inhibiting oxidation processes caused by free radicals, ...

Recommended for you

Growing a blood vessel in a week

14 hours ago

The technology for creating new tissues from stem cells has taken a giant leap forward. Three tablespoons of blood are all that is needed to grow a brand new blood vessel in just seven days. This is shown ...

Testing time for stem cells

17 hours ago

DefiniGEN is one of the first commercial opportunities to arise from Cambridge's expertise in stem cell research. Here, we look at some of the fundamental research that enables it to supply liver and pancreatic ...

Team finds key signaling pathway in cause of preeclampsia

Oct 23, 2014

A team of researchers led by a Wayne State University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology has published findings that provide novel insight into the cause of preeclampsia, the leading cause ...

Rapid test to diagnose severe sepsis

Oct 23, 2014

A new test, developed by University of British Columbia researchers, could help physicians predict within an hour if a patient will develop severe sepsis so they can begin treatment immediately.

User comments : 0