Lycopene is a plant nutrient with antioxidant properties. It’s the pigment that gives red and pink fruits, such as tomatoes, watermelons and pink grapefruit, their characteristic color.

Lycopene has been linked to health benefits ranging from heart health to protection against sunburns and certain types of cancers.

This article looks at the health benefits and top food sources of lycopene.

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Lycopene is an antioxidant in the carotenoid family.

Antioxidants protect your body from damage caused by compounds known as free radicals.

When free radical levels outnumber antioxidant levels, they can create oxidative stress in your body. This stress is linked to certain chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s (1).

Research shows that lycopene’s antioxidant properties can help keep free radical levels in balance, protecting your body against some of these conditions (2).

In addition, test-tube and animal studies show that lycopene may protect your body against damage caused by pesticides, herbicides, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and certain types of fungi (3, 4, 5, 6).

Summary Lycopene is a strong antioxidant that can protect your body against oxidative stress and offer some protection from certain environmental toxins and chronic diseases.

Lycopene’s strong antioxidant action may prevent or slow down the progression of some types of cancer.

For instance, test-tube studies show that the nutrient may slow down the growth of breast and prostate cancers by limiting tumor growth (7, 8).

Animal studies further report that it may prevent the growth of cancer cells in the kidneys (9).

In humans, observational studies link high intakes of carotenoids, including lycopene, to a 32–50% lower risk of lung and prostate cancers (8, 10, 11).

A 23-year study in more than 46,000 men looked at the link between lycopene and prostate cancer in more detail.

Men who consumed at least two servings of lycopene-rich tomato sauce per week were 30% less likely to develop prostate cancer than those who ate less than one serving of tomato sauce per month (12).

However, a recent review of 26 studies found more moderate results. Researchers linked high lycopene intakes to a 9% lower likelihood of developing prostate cancer. Daily intakes of 9–21 mg per day appeared most beneficial (13).

Summary Diets rich in the antioxidant lycopene may help prevent the development of prostate cancer. It may also protect against cancers of the lungs, breasts and kidneys, but more human-based research is needed to confirm this.

Lycopene may also help lower your risk of developing or prematurely dying from heart disease (14).

That’s in part because it may reduce heart disease risk factors. More specifically, it may reduce free-radical damage, total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and increase “good” HDL cholesterol (15, 16).

High blood levels of lycopene may also add years to the lives of people with metabolic syndrome — a combination of health conditions that can lead to heart disease.

Over a 10-year period, researchers noted that individuals with metabolic disease who had the highest blood lycopene levels had up to a 39% lower risk of dying prematurely (17).

In another 10-year study, diets rich in this nutrient were linked to a 17–26% lower risk of heart disease. A recent review further associates high blood levels of lycopene with a 31% lower risk of stroke (18, 19).

Lycopene’s protective effects appear particularly beneficial to those with low blood antioxidant levels or high levels of oxidative stress. This includes older adults and people who smoke or have diabetes or heart disease (20).

Summary Lycopene’s strong antioxidant properties may help improve cholesterol levels and reduce your likelihood of developing or dying prematurely from heart disease.

Lycopene also appears to offer some protection against the damaging effects of the sun (21, 22).

In one small 12-week study, participants were exposed to UV rays before and after consuming either 16 mg of lycopene from tomato paste or a placebo. Participants in the tomato paste group had less severe skin reactions to the UV exposure (23).

In another 12-week study, daily intake of 8–16 mg of lycopene, either from food or supplements, helped reduce the intensity of skin redness following exposure to UV rays by 40–50%.

In this study, supplements providing a mix of lycopene and other carotenoids were more effective against UV damage than those providing lycopene alone (24).

That said, lycopene’s protection against UV damage is limited and not considered a good replacement for using sunscreen.

Summary Lycopene may help increase your skin’s defense against sunburns and damage caused by UV rays. However, it is no replacement for sunscreen.

Lycopene may also offer a range of other health benefits — the best-researched ones include:

  • May help your eyesight: Lycopene may prevent or delay the formation of cataracts and reduce your risk of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults (25, 26).
  • May reduce pain: Lycopene may help reduce neuropathic pain, a type of pain caused by nerve and tissue damage (27, 28).
  • May protect your brain: Lycopene’s antioxidant properties may help prevent seizures and memory loss experienced in age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s (29, 30, 31).
  • May contribute to stronger bones: Lycopene’s antioxidant action may slow down the death of bone cells, reinforce bone architecture and help keep bones healthy and strong (32).

So far, most of these benefits have only been observed in test-tube and animal research. More studies in humans are needed before strong conclusions can be made.

Summary Lycopene may help reduce feelings of pain and have beneficial effects on your eyes, brain and bones. More studies, especially in humans, are needed to confirm these results.

All natural foods with a rich pink to red color generally contain some lycopene.

Tomatoes are the biggest food source, and the riper the tomato, the more lycopene it contains. But you can find this nutrient in an array of other foods as well.

Here’s a list of foods containing the most lycopene per 100 grams (33):

  • Sun-dried tomatoes: 45.9 mg
  • Tomato purée: 21.8 mg
  • Guava: 5.2 mg
  • Watermelon: 4.5 mg
  • Fresh tomatoes: 3.0 mg
  • Canned tomatoes: 2.7 mg
  • Papaya: 1.8 mg
  • Pink grapefruit: 1.1 mg
  • Cooked sweet red peppers: 0.5 mg

There is currently no recommended daily intake for lycopene. However, from the current studies, intakes between 8–21 mg per day appear to be most beneficial.

Summary Most red and pink foods contain some lycopene. Tomatoes and foods made with tomatoes are the richest sources of this nutrient.

Though lycopene is present in my many foods, you can also take it in supplement form.

However, when taken as a supplement, lycopene may interact with certain medications, including blood thinners and blood-pressure lowering medications (34).

One small study also found that 2 mg of daily lycopene supplements during pregnancy could increase your risk of preterm labor or low birth weight (35).

As a side note, some research reports that the beneficial effects of this nutrient may be stronger when eaten from foods rather than supplements (36).

Summary Lycopene supplements may not be suited for everyone and do not always offer the same benefits as lycopene from foods.

Lycopene is generally considered safe, especially when it’s obtained from foods.

In a few rare cases, eating very high amounts of lycopene-rich foods led to a skin discoloration known as lycopenodermia.

That said, such high levels are generally difficult to achieve through diet alone.

In one study, the condition resulted from a man drinking 34 ounces (2 liters) of tomato juice daily for several years. The skin discoloration can be reversed following a lycopene-free diet for a couple of weeks (37, 38).

Lycopene supplements may not be suited for pregnant women and those taking certain types of medications (34, 35).

Summary Lycopene found in foods is generally risk-free. However, lycopene from supplements, especially when taken in high amounts, may have some downsides.

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant with many health benefits, including sun protection, improved heart health and a lower risk of certain types of cancer.

Though it can be found as a supplement, it may be most effective when consumed from lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes and other red or pink fruits.