Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes and pink grapefruit. Like the better-known supplement beta-carotene, lycopene belongs to the family of chemicals known as carotenoids. As an antioxidant, it is about twice as powerful as beta-carotene.
Lycopene is not a necessary nutrient. However, like other substances found in fruits and vegetables, it may be very important for optimal health.
Tomatoes are the best source of lycopene. Happily, cooking doesn't destroy lycopene, so pizza sauce is just as good as a fresh tomato. In fact, some studies indicate that cooking tomatoes in oil may provide lycopene in a way that the body can use better,1,2 although not all studies agree.3 Lycopene is also found in watermelon, guava, and pink grapefruit. Synthetic lycopene is also available and appears to be as well absorbed as natural-source lycopene.30
The optimum dosage for lycopene has not been established, but the amount found helpful in studies generally fell in the range of 4 to 8 mg daily.
It has been suggested the lycopene is better absorbed when it is taken with fats such as olive oil, but one study failed to find any meaningful change in absorption.34
Some but not all observational studies suggest that foods containing lycopene may help prevent macular degeneration, cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.5-13,31,37 However, observational studies are highly unreliable means of determining the effectiveness of medical treatments; only double-blind studies can do so, and few have yet been performed that relate to these potential uses of lycopene. (For more information on why double-blind trials are so important, see Why Does this Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?)
The best study of lycopene thus far evaluated its possible benefits for pregnant women.28 Participants in this double-blind study of 251 women received either placebo or 2 mg of lycopene twice daily. For reasons that are not at all clear, use of lycopene appeared to reduce risk of preeclampsia, a dangerous complication of pregnancy. In addition, use of lycopene appeared to help prevent inadequate growth of the fetus. However despite these promising results researchers are cautious about drawing conclusions: several other nutritional substances have shown promise for preventing preeclampsia in preliminary trials only to fail when larger and more definitive studies were done.29
In another study, the effects of lycopene supplements were evaluated in 2 arms of a randomized trial with a total of 72 people. Participants included those taking statins for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and healthy people not taking CVD medications. Each group was randomized to 7 g of lycopene for 2 months or placebo. Lycopene was not associated with changes in blood pressure or cholesterol when compared to placebo in either group.49
Lycopene has also shown promise for leukoplakia, a precancerous condition of the mouth and other mucous membranes. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 58 people with oral leukoplakia received either 8 mg oral lycopene daily, 4 mg daily, or placebo capsules for three months.32 Participants were then followed for an additional two months. The results indicated that lycopene in either dose was more effective than placebo for reducing signs and symptoms of leukoplakia, and that 8 mg daily was more effective than 4 mg.
Lycopene (taken at a dose of 16 g daily) has shown promise for oral submucous fibrosis, a severe condition of the mouth primarily associated with excessive chewing of betel nuts.47
Regarding yet another mouth condition, gingivitis (periodontal disease), the results of a small double-blind trial suggest that lycopene can offers benefits when taken on its own, or when used to augment the effectiveness of standard care.48
Much weaker evidence—far too weak to rely upon at all—hints that lycopene or a standardized tomato extract containing lycopene might be helpful for treating a number of conditions, including prostate cancer,23,35,43hypertension,36breast cancer24 and male infertility,25 and for preventing heart disease,26sunburn,33 and testicular damage caused by the cancer chemotherapy drug adriamycin.41
Lycopene is believed to be a safe supplement, as evidenced by the fact that researchers felt comfortable giving it to pregnant women.28 One evaluation of the literature concluded that long term use of lycopene should be generally safe in doses up to at least 75 mg per day.42
Note: We suggest that pregnant women should consult with a physician before taking any herbs or supplements.
Maximum safe dosages for young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease have not been established.
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8. Kim DJ, Takasuka N, Kim JM, et al. Chemoprevention by lycopene of mouse lung neoplasia after combined initiation treatment with DEN, MNU and DMH. Cancer Lett. 1997;120:15-22.
9. Okajima E, Tsutsumi M, Ozono S. Inhibitory effect of tomato juice on rat urinary bladder carcinogenesis after N-butyl-N-(4-hydroxybutyl)nitrosamine initiation. Jpn J Cancer Res. 1998;89:22-26.
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15. Giovannucci E, Clinton SK. Tomatoes, lycopene, and prostate cancer. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1998;218:129-139.
16. Gionvannucci E. Tomatoes, tomato-based products, lycopene, and cancer: review of the epidemiological literature. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999;91:317-331.
17. Michaud DS, Feskanich D, Rimm EB, et al. Intake of specific carotenoids and risk of lung cancer in 2 prospective US cohorts. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72:990-997.
18. Franceschi S, Bidoli E, La Vecchia C, et al. Tomatoes and risk of digestive-tract cancers. Int J Cancer. 1994;59:181-184.
19. Kim DJ, Takasuka N, Kim JM, et al. Chemoprevention by lycopene of mouse lung neoplasia after combined initiation treatment with DEN, MNU and DMH. Cancer Lett. 1997;120:15-22.
20. Okajima E, Tsutsumi M, Ozono S. Inhibitory effect of tomato juice on rat urinary bladder carcinogenesis after N-butyl-N-(4-hydroxybutyl)nitrosamine initiation. Jpn J Cancer Res. 1998;89:22-26.
21. Key TJ, Silcocks PB, Davey GK, et al. A case-control study of diet and prostate cancer. Br J Cancer. 1997;76:678-687.
22. Nomura AM, Stemmermann GN, Lee J, et al. Serum micronutrients and prostate cancer in Japanese Americans in Hawaii. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1997;6:487-491.
23. Kucuk O, Sarkar FH, Sakr W, et al. Phase II randomized clinical trial of lycopene supplementation before radical prostatectomy. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2001;10:861-868.
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28. Sharma JB, Kumar A, Kumar A, et al. Effect of lycopene on pre-eclampsia and intra-uterine growth retardation in primigravidas. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2003;81:257-262.
29. Sibai BM. Prevention of preeclampsia: a big disapointment. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1998;179:1275-1278.
30. Hoppe PP, Kramer K, Van Den Berg H, et al. Synthetic and tomato-based lycopene have identical bioavailability in humans. Eur J Nutr. 2003;42:272-278.
31. Sesso HD, Liu S, Gaziano JM, et al. Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women. J Nutr. 2003;133:2336-2341.
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33. Stahl W, Heinrich U, Wiseman S, et al. Dietary tomato paste protects against ultraviolet light-induced erythema in humans. Journal of Nutrition. 2001;131:1449-1451.
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35. Mohanty NK, Saxena S, Singh UP, et al. Lycopene as a chemopreventive agent in the treatment of high-grade prostate intraepithelial neoplasia. Urol Oncol. 2005;23:383-385.
36. Engelhard YN, Gazer B, Paran E, et al. Natural antioxidants from tomato extract reduce blood pressure in patients with grade-1 hypertension: a double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study. Am Heart J. 2006;151:100.
37. Sesso HD, Buring JE, Norkus EP, et al. Plasma lycopene, other carotenoids, and retinol and the risk of cardiovascular disease in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81:990-997.
38. Engelhard YN, Gazer B, Paran E, et al. Natural antioxidants from tomato extract reduce blood pressure in patients with grade-1 hypertension: a double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study. Am Heart J. 2005;151:100.
39. Falk B, Gorev R, Zigel L, et al. Effect of lycopene supplementation on lung function after exercise in young athletes who complain of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction symptoms. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2005;94:480-485.
40. Wang L, Liu S, Manson JE, et al. The consumption of lycopene and tomato-based food products is not associated with the risk of type 2 diabetes in women. J Nutr. 2006;136:620-625.
41. Atessahin A, Turk G, Karahan I, et al. Lycopene prevents adriamycin-induced testicular toxicity in rats. Fertil Steril. 2006;85:(Suppl 1):1216-22.
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44. Atessahin A, Turk G, Karahan I, et al. Lycopene prevents adriamycin-induced testicular toxicity in rats. Fertil Steril. 2006;85(Suppl 1):1216-22.
45. Yilmaz S, Atessahin A, Sahna E, et al. Protective effect of lycopene on adriamycin-induced cardiotoxicity and nephrotoxicity. Toxicology. 2005;218:164-71.
46. Karimi G, Ramezani M, Abdi A. Protective effects of lycopene and tomato extract against doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity. Phytother Res. 2005;19:912-914.
47. Kumar A, Bagewadi A, Keluskar V, et al. Efficacy of lycopene in the management of oral submucous fibrosis. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol Oral Radiol Endod. 2007;103:207-213.
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Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015