International scientists gathered to discuss the growing body of research on lycopene, a natural antioxidant found in tomato products, at a conference in the US this week.
New studies presented at the meeting included evidence to suggest the role of the antioxidant in relation to male infertility.
"Our work shows that a diet rich in lycopene can promote fertility in men struggling with infertility. In part we can conclude that men who have poor quality sperm can benefit from lycopene, and should consider a balanced diet as part of their strategy to reproduce, especially a diet including tomatoes," said Dr Narmada Gupta, head of the Urology Department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India. His study is scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of International Journal of Urology and Nephrology.
Researchers and participants from Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Israel, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States discussed other new studies in progress or planned to examine the effects of lycopene on skin cancer, lung function and prostate, breast and endometrial cancers.
Dr Leticia Rao, from St Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto, discussed the importance of the nutrient for preventing osteoporosis.
"To retain good bones, there must be a balance in the activities of bone-forming and bone-destroying cells. The presence of free radicals in the body can upset that balance favouring bone-destroying cells; however, lycopene might play a restorative role by protecting against the formation of free radicals, limiting oxidative stress," she said. Dr Rao is beginning a clinical study to confirm her theory.
Dr David Yeung, general manager of Global Nutrition at H.J. Heinz, conference sponsor, said that interest in lycopene will continue to increase as more consumers become aware of its health benefits.
"We are fortunate that nature adds lycopene to tomatoes, and that it is more bio-available when the tomatoes are cooked," he added.
Of obvious benefit to Heinz, one of the leading manufacturers of processed tomato products, is the recent finding that the heat processing of tomatoes releases up to 2.5 times the lycopene from the fruit, making it more bioavailable and absorbable in the body than lycopene from fresh tomatoes.
Lycopene has been shown in a University of Toronto study to reduce the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease. And a Harvard Medical School study of 48,000 men showed that consuming tomato products twice a week as opposed to never, was associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer of up to 34 per cent.
Another study, conducted at the University of North Carolina, compared fat samples from 1,379 American and European men who had suffered heart attacks with those of healthy men. It found that those with high levels of lycopene were half as likely to have an attack as those with low levels.
The International Ceres Forum on 'Examining the Health Benefits of Lycopene from Tomatoes' was organised by the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech, an independent, non-profit research and education center aiming to advance science-based food and nutrition policy.