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Ask Tufts Experts February 2014 Issue

Q. We have been hearing about the benefits of lycopene. Is it true that red and yellow tomatoes have different types of lycopene, and that the type in yellow tomatoes is more easily absorbed by the human body?

A. Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, a scientist in Tufts’ HNRCA Carotenoids & Health Laboratory, explains, “Red tomatoes are red due to lycopene. Lycopene is in a class of plant pigment call carotenoids. Yellow tomatoes have no lycopene, but other plant pigments.

“These are the factors that will make lycopene better absorbed from foods:

1. Cooking
2. Juicing
3. Pureeing
4. Eating with a source of fat (you do not need a lot).

“Factors 1-3 increase the bioavailability (the amount from food that actually ends up in the body) by breaking up the plant cell wall (lycopene is trapped within the cell). Factor 4 helps in the absorption. Because lycopene is fat soluble, it needs a source of fat to get the mechanisms needed for fat absorption—e.g., bile salts, pancreatic juice, the right sort of packaging in the gut for uptake into the intestine. The amount of lycopene that is in our diet is not enough for the gut to recognize it as fat (milligram amounts); dietary fat is consumed in gram amounts (1,000 times greater).”

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