For many people, summer means sunburn. Fortunately, summer also provides protection. Those juicy tomatoes available by the bushel in the hot months appear to be good for preventing or minimizing
Tomato-based foods and a tomato oleoresin extract were both effective at reducing the degree of redness after a controlled exposure to UV radiation. Daily consumption of tomato paste containing 16 mg of lycopene resulted in a 40% lesser burn compared to placebo under controlled conditions (Stahl W, et al. J Nutr. 2001; 131: 1449–1451). A follow-up study using the same sunburn model showed that 10 mg of lycopene in either the synthetic or natural form, minimized redness post-burn; however, the natural sources were more effective.
The debate over synthetic versus natural lycopene supplements has gone on for some time. Both can increase serum lycopene levels if consumed regularly for extended periods of time. But the natural form has a major advantage in that it provides other beneficial bioactive compounds like phytofluene and phytoene (Aust O, et al. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2005; 75(1): 54–60), which may be important not only to offset the effects of the sun, but also to help reduce the risk of diseases such as CVD and cancer.
While it won't likely replace a good sunscreen, daily consumption of about 10–16 mg of lycopene from food or a natural extract can reduce the redness and photodamage associated with sunburn.
In most studies, high intakes of tomatoes, tomato-based foods, or a natural tomato extract provided significant benefits in terms of reducing disease risk or improving management of various conditions.
Lycopene content in tomatoes varies by strain, agricultural conditions, and ripeness. As a rough estimate, the average tomato contains 5–10 mg of lycopene, along with a lot of other nutrients, like alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene, phytoene, and phytofluene (Engelhard YN, et al. Am Heart J. 2006; 151(1): 100.e1–100.e6). Lycopene may be a more potent antioxidant than alpha- or beta-carotene (Rissanen TH, et al. Br J Nutr. 2001; 85(6): 749–754. Chen L, et al. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2001; 93(24): 1872–1879).
Interestingly, bioavailability of lycopene increases with cooking, though from a practical viewpoint, differences are pretty small. Paetau and colleagues measured the bioavailability of lycopene from tomatoes, tomato-containing products like tomato juice, or tomato extract supplements. Mean increases in plasma lycopene were similar after ingestion of 70–75 mg of lycopene from tomato juice, and two dietary supplements containing a natural lycopene extract (Paetau I, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998; 68(6): 1187–1195). For optimal bioavailability, the tomatoes and tomato-based foods should be eaten with a little bit of a healthy oil.
One need not gorge oneself on tomatoes to get the health benefits of lycopene. Remember that in most positive studies, the daily lycopene intake was modest, in the range of 2 mg to 15 mg.
This amount can easily be achieved by having a tomato-based product or a couple of fresh tomatoes each day. Ketchup is one of the densest sources of lycopene, and has the added advantage of being liked by nearly everyone, even avowed vegetable-haters. Using ketchup and tomato pastes regularly will easily provide beneficial amounts of lycopene and other bioactive compounds. Natural tomato extract oleoresin in dietary supplement form is equally effective.