Is it true that tomatoes can actually help in the fight against many cancers? The answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”
Some of the most exciting studies on tomatoes have focused on their ability to protect against cancer, especially prostate cancer. Dr. Edward Giovannucci of the Harvard Medical School has published two interesting studies that investigated the effects of foods, particularly tomatoes, on cancer risk. In his 1995 study, Dr. Giovannucci found that of the 48,000 men surveyed, those who ate ten or more servings of tomatoes a week reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 35 percent and their risk of aggressive prostate tumors by almost 50 percent. Indeed, it seemed the higher the tomato intake, the lower the cancer risk. Interestingly, lycopene is the most abundant carotenoid in the prostate gland.
Dr. Giovannucci’s subsequent study in 1999 showed that, of all tomato products, tomato sauce consumption—at just two servings a week—was by far the most reliable indicator of reduced risk for prostate cancer.
Two Key Points Surrounding Tomatoes and Cancer
Two important points emerge from these studies. The first is that processed tomatoes—sauce and paste—are more effective than raw tomatoes at reducing cancer risk. In the raw tomato, the lycopene is bound into the cell walls and fiber. Processing breaks down these cell walls and frees the lycopene to be absorbed by the body. Ounce for ounce, processed tomato products and cooked tomatoes contain two to eight times the available lycopene of raw tomatoes. While processing does diminish the levels of vitamin C in the tomatoes, it elevates the total antioxidant activity, thus ultimately providing an enhanced benefit.
The second important point, which Dr. Giovannucci mentions in his article, once again highlights the importance of whole foods. While he notes the association between tomato consumption and reduced cancer risk, particularly lung, stomach. and prostate cancers, he makes it clear that “a direct benefit of lycopene has not been proven and other compounds in tomatoes alone or interacting with lycopene may be important.” Given the rich array of nutrients in tomatoes it wouldn’t be surprising if, once again, the synergy of those nutrients were the reason for the positive effects.
Prostate cancer isn’t the only type of cancer that tomatoes seem to help protect against. A growing body of evidence suggests that lycopene provides some degree of protection against cancers of the breast, digestive tract, cervix, bladder, and lung.
Lycopene seems to reduce the risk of cancer in several ways. As a particularly powerful antioxidant, it helps block the ongoing destructive effects of the free radicals in the body. It’s especially effective in this mission when sufficient vitamin E is present. Lycopene also seems to interfere with the growth factors that stimulate cancer cells to grow and proliferate. And finally it seems to stimulate the body to mount a more effective immune defense against cancer.