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Tomatoes are by far the richest source of lycopene in the American diet, though other red-colored fruits – like watermelon and papaya – are rich in the nutrient as well. Emmaline Rasmussen, MS, RD, LDN, Clinical Research Dietitian at NorthShore, explains that a lycopene is a carotenoid – the name of a group of plant precursors to Vitamin A. It has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, making it important for the prevention of chronic degenerative and inflammatory conditions.
Crushing or finely dicing tomatoes helps liberate the lycopene from the cell walls of the tomato where it is bound to fiber. Lycopene is also a fat-soluble nutrient, which means it is best absorbed by our bodies when it is combined with a little dietary fat. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the perfect fat to pair with tomatoes because it is rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fats. Heating helps convert lycopene in tomatoes into the form of this nutrient that is easiest for our bodies to use. This can be done by heating tomatoes for 15-60 minutes for the most benefits.
While store-bought tomato paste, sauce, soup or juice provides a healthy dose of lycopene, be sure to look for the low-sodium varieties as pre-packaged, processed foods are often sodium-laden. In the face of the raw food and clean eating trends, this is one of the few times when Emmaline tells her patients to go for the processed version of a food whether you process it yourself (by crushing/dicing and cooking) or by choosing to buy tomato products already processed.
Emmaline’s favorite way to maximize the lycopene benefits in tomatoes is by prepping this delicious recipe*:
Ingredients (to taste):
*This takes about an hour to prep and cook. Consider prepping this over the weekend and keeping it in the refrigerator to use throughout the week or freeze some of it for later.
This tomato mix is delicious while served over spaghetti squash, fish or chicken. It can also be mixed in with beans and quinoa for a savory vegan alternative.