You Say Tomayto

A Tomato a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

A new study shows one tomato (in pill form!) each day could keep heart disease and cancer at bay.

Apples are so last year: it’s now a tomato that will keep the doctor away—and in pill form, too. A study undertaken by scientists in the UK found that using the newly developed tomato pill improved the functioning of blood vessels, reinforcing the long-held theory that a Mediterranean-style diet is good for your health.

The capsule contains natural anti-oxidant lycopene, which is 10 times more potent than vitamin E and also responsible for giving tomatoes their red hue. Lycopene has long been thought of as a staunch protector against illnesses including tumors, heart disease, and cancer, and has now been proven—among the study’s 76 participants, at least—to strengthen blood vessels in the body.

Joseph Cheriyan, associate lecturer at the University of Cambridge and senior author of the study, explained, “As the most potent antioxidant known, there is biological plausibility and epidemiological data suggesting that lycopene intake may be at least partly responsible for variations in cardiovascular mortality across Europe.” Dr. Cheriyan’s research team used placebo pills to examine the effects of the tomato tablet, distributing the two amongst 36 people with heart issues and 36 healthy volunteers. It was undertaken as a double-blind study, meaning that neither the doctors nor their subjects knew who was receiving what treatment.

Fifty-three percent of the patients initially listed as having heart disease found that the widening of their blood vessels improved after taking the lycopene pill compared to those who had been using the placebo, adding weight to the theory that the red stuff is something of a natural medical marvel. Constriction of the blood vessels is one of the major causes of strokes and heart attacks, so the find is significant in developing successful treatments for an epidemic that is now responsible for 25 percent of deaths in the US. Dr. Cheriyan and his team believe that the pill’s success was due to the improved functioning of the endothelium—the inner wall cell lining of blood vessels.

The 7mg of the anti-oxidant contained in each capsule is equivalent to around 1kg of fresh tomatoes, but lycopene’s potency also appears to be enhanced when consumed either pureed, in the presence of olive oil, or in ketchup. The anti-oxidant can also be found in other fruits and vegetables including watermelons, apricots and pink grapefruits.

"Impaired endothelial function is a known predictor of increased risk of future heart disease,” said Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation (which helped fund the research). “Further work is needed to understand whether the beneficial effects seen in this small study translate into clinical benefit for at-risk patients."

But Dr. Cheriyan was positive about the study’s findings: “We’ve shown quite clearly that lycopene improves the function of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease patients. It reinforces the need for a healthy diet in people at risk from heart disease and stroke.”

Indeed, while lycopene clearly offers many important health benefits, the tomato pill cannot be used as a replacement for other treatments, but can be highly beneficial when used in conjunction with other medication. It is hoped that the drug will eventually be a candidate for combatting heart disease, although “this would need much larger trials to investigate outcomes more carefully,” he said.