There's more to tomatoes than being the base of our favorite pasta sauce or pizza—and we're not just talking about versatility in recipes. Tomatoes are underrated powerhouses when it comes to nutritional benefits, and they don't get the superfood status they've surely earned. One of the reasons why we're such big fans of tomatoes is because eating them can result in one major side effect you can't really get by eating any other popular foods: fending off cellular-damaging free radicals thanks to tomatoes' high levels of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.
What is lycopene?
Lycopene is a carotenoid: a class of antioxidant pigments that impart a red color to fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes. This carotenoid has been studied for its potent antioxidant activity, and research shows that it's been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers, like prostate cancer.
Antioxidants protect the human body from cell and tissue damage, which occurs when harmful molecules called free radicals are metabolized by the body. Free radicals are formed when your body is exposed to environmental factors, like pollution, but they're also natural byproducts of chemical reactions that happen in the body.
How much lycopene is in tomatoes?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), tomato products earn the highest marks when it comes to lycopene content, holding nine of the top 10 spots for foods highest in the antioxidant. Grapefruit, papaya, watermelon, and guava are also sources of this bioactive compound that lends plants a red hue.
To get the most lycopene punch for your buck, opt for ripened or cooked tomatoes when possible. Cooked tomatoes have higher concentrations of lycopene than uncooked tomatoes, according to research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. In this study, researchers found that the lycopene content of cooked tomatoes was 50% higher than that of raw tomatoes. They also found that the levels of all antioxidants found in tomatoes were, on average, 28% higher than uncooked tomatoes.
Tomatoes are the best source of lycopene you can get in your diet, and you'll experience the free-radical-fighting side effects of this antioxidant when you consume this fruit—especially when you eat cooked pasta sauce.
For more healthy eating news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read this next: