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Lycopene is a pigment that gives vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon, their red color. It also appears to have strong antioxidant capabilities. Studies suggest that a diet rich in lycopene is associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Lycopene is one of the carotenes, and a member of the carotenoid family. Most people have much higher levels of lycopene than beta-carotene in their liver, adrenal glands, lungs, prostate, colon, and skin; which isnít such a bad thing, considering it has twice the antioxidant power of beta-carotene.

The body doesnít produce lycopene, so you must eat foods rich in lycopene to benefit from its considerable antioxidant powers. The good news is, itís easy to get enough lycopene in your diet. Tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce, tomato juice, ketchup and pizza sauce are by far the best sources of lycopene, and are already a major part of the typical American diet. More good news for parents--processed tomato products are better absorbed by the body than fresh tomatoes, so pizza, spaghetti, ketchup and other kid-friendly foods offer your child a high dose of antioxidant protection. However, cooking fresh tomatoes with a little oil greatly increases lycopene absorption, and other fresh fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon, pink grapefruit, and red peppers, also contain lycopene.

Studies have shown that lycopene seems to protect against cancer of the digestive tract, colon, prostate, and lungs. A study in Italy found that people who ate seven or more servings a week of raw tomatoes were 60 percent less likely to develop cancer of the stomach, colon, or rectum compared with people who ate two or fewer servings a week.

More recent research suggests that lycopene, like beta-carotene, may play an important role in keeping vision healthy by preventing cataracts and Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Lycopene may also help prevent heart disease. In 1997, a major European study showed that men who ate the most lycopene were only half as likely to have a heart attack as those who ate the least.

Lycopene is available in a dietary supplement derived from tomatoes; however, research by scientists indicates that lycopene supplements do not offer the same cancer-fighting benefits as a diet that includes plenty of whole tomato products. You need around 6.5 milligrams of lycopene every day to reap its considerable antioxidant benefits, but itís best to get this from natural sources. Keep in mind that lycopene is best absorbed when taken with a small amount of fatóeat fresh tomatoes with an oil-based salad dressing, and enjoy the cheese on your pizza!

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