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Tomatoes Help Prevent Osteoporosis

New research by Leticia and Venket Rao, PhDs, at the University of Toronto, Canada, which was funded by Heinz and presented at the 2002 American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference in Philadelphia, suggests that tomatoes can help prevent osteoporosis.

Tomatoes (both raw and processed) are a rich source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant earlier research showed reduces the risk of prostate, cervical and breast cancer, as well as heart disease. Now, it appears lycopene’s beneficial effects extend to osteoporosis.

An all too common degenerative condition in which bone becomes fragile and fractures easily, osteoporosis is a chronic, silent disease that gives no warning symptoms. More than 10 million Americans, 8 million of them women, suffer from this debilitating disease, plus an additional 34 million people have low bone mass placing them at increased risk.

Practical Tips

Although not all scientists agree, it is generally thought that the availability of lycopene from tomato is increased when they are cooked or packaged with oil.

Here are a few of the many serving ideas from the World’s Healthiest Foods to help you enjoy tomatoes’ many protective benefits.

  • Making homemade spaghetti sauce is as simple as healthy sautéing some garlic in olive oil, adding chopped tomatoes, oregano, basil and any other herbs and spices you like, and simmering for ten to fifteen minutes. The longer you simmer, the richer and deeper the flavor will be.
  • When making your own tomato sauce, use vine-ripened tomatoes if possible as they have been shown to have a higher lycopene content than tomatoes ripened off the vine.
  • Enjoy a classic Italian salad – sliced onions, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese drizzled with olive oil.
  • Combine chopped onions, tomatoes, and chili peppers for an easy to make salsa dip.
  • Purée tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and scallions together in a food processor and season with herbs and spices of your choice to make the refreshing cold soup, gazpacho.

To learn more about tomatoes, truly one of the World’s Healthiest Foods, click tomato. For some exceptional recipes featuring tomatoes, click on the Recipe Assistant, select tomatoes on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World’s Healthiest Foods’ recipes containing tomatoes will appear immediately below.

Research Summary

Epidemiological evidence has shown that populations that consume large quantities of tomatoes and tomato products have a lower incidence of osteoporosis, so the Drs. Rao carried out studies on a cellular level to determine what role lycopene plays in preventing the bone-ravaging disease. The Raos studied lycopene’s effects on oxidative stress in bone. Oxidative stress is a term used to describe the harmful effects of excessive free radical exposure. In addition to risk factors such as family history, lifestyle, nutrition and low calcium intake, oxidative stress has been linked to osteoporosis because free radicals can increase bone resorption.

Bone contains osteoblasts, cells which form bone, and osteoclasts, large multinucleated cells which resorb bone. In healthy bone, a delicate balance is maintained between these two types of cells. When this balance is disrupted, however, osteoblasts’ bone production process can result in the creation of high levels of free radicals which, if unchecked, then trigger osteoclasts to multiply, resulting in bone loss and osteoporosis. The Rao’s research shows that lycopene, by reducing oxidative stress, prevents this multiplication of free radicals and osteoclasts that results in excessive bone resorption.

In earlier research, the Raos’ had found that consuming 40 mg/day of lycopene is enough to reduce levels of free radicals in the body, which in turn reduces oxidative stress, a factor not only in the development of osteoporosis, but heart disease, cancers and aging.

"Dietary antioxidants, such as lycopene, offer an effective strategy to prevent oxidative damage and therefore may prevent bone loss…Our research suggests that treatment and prevention through diet such as the consumption of tomatoes and tomato products rich in lycopene may offer a viable alternative to medication," notes Dr. Leticia Rao.

Because the Raos’ research at the cellular level has shown such promising results, clinical human studies are now beginning. "We are excited about the results we have thus far and are looking forward to finding out more during our clinical research," Dr. Leticia Rao stated. Participants in the Raos’ clinical research include post-menopausal women at high risk of osteoporosis. Their study should be complete in about two years.

Lycopene’s protective activity against bone loss is also of interest to men since not only has lycopene been found to lower the risk of prostate cancer, but men with prostate cancer frequently suffer from low bone mineral density.

In addition to tomatoes, watermelon, another of the World’s Healthiest Foods, has also been identified as a rich source of lycopene by scientists at America’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). ARS scientists in Oklahoma and Beltsville have determined the lycopene content of 13 watermelon cultivars, as well as assessing its bioavailability in relation to heat treatment, since some recent research has found that lycopene in tomatoes becomes more bioavailable after heating. The results showed that on average, watermelon contains about 40% more lycopene than tomatoes. In tests for bioavailability in 23 human volunteers, both heat treated tomato juice and unheated watermelon juice increased the plasma concentrations of lycopene, confirming the bioavailability of the watermelon lycopene.

References: Presentation by Drs. Leticia and Venket Rao at the American Dietetic Association of Food and Nutrition Conference and Exhibition, Philadelphia, PA, Oct. 21, 2002. Lycopene in the news again. RSSL Natural e-news, June 12, 2002. Bliss, RM, Watermelon shows its lycopene stripes. Agricultural Research Service, USDA, June 4, 2002. Could tomatoes help combat osteoporosis? RSSL, Food e-news, April 2001.


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