Are Lycopene Supplements a Good Idea for You?
Q: Is it True That Lycopene Can Reduce the Risk of Cancer?
A: Research shows that lycopene from food sources appears to reduce the risk of prostate cancer and possibly other cancers too. We do not know that it is ONLY the lycopene lowering cancer risk. More research is needed to determine that.
It might be that lycopene is found in the same foods as some other, undiscovered food chemical. This unknown food chemical might be the REAL reason that eating foods containing lycopene appears to decrease cancer risk. For now, stick with foods that contain lycopene.
Q: What About Lycopene Supplements...Are They Effective?
A: Food is very complex. Foods contain thousands and thousands of phytochemicals (plant chemicals). Past experience has taught us that single nutrients or a few nutrients in a pill (like vitamin supplements), does not give the same effect as eating WHOLE foods.
There are many reasons I advise against supplementing nutrients instead of eating the foods that contain these nutrients. Like beta-carotene, lycopene is a carotenoid. Over 600 carotenoids have been identified in nature!
That is what the beta-carotene trials were all about. For years, scientists noted that diets high in beta-carotene FROM FOOD SOURCES, reduced risk of many types of cancer, including lung cancer in smokers.
But when researchers tested beta-carotene SUPPLEMENTS in people who smoke, it INCREASED cancer risk substantially. Two independent studies showed that beta-carotene SUPPLEMENTS INCREASED lung cancer risk in smokers. Beta-carotene SUPPLEMENTS also increased the risk of other cancers, heart attack, and stroke. BUT, FOODS THAT CONTAIN BETA-CAROTENE DO SEEM TO REDUCE CANCER RISK.
Supplements Do Not Equal Food
There is no guarantee the same thing wouldn't happen with lycopene. Lycopene SEEMS to protect against cancer. But, remember that there is only an ASSOCIATION between lycopene in the diet and lower risk of cancer. This is a very weak link. There have been NO studies to prove that lycopene itself is the factor decreasing cancer risk.
It could be something else in these foods. It could be the effect of all of these thousands of phytochemicals working together (my personal feeling). This is why we know that diets containing these food chemicals are protective against many diseases, but supplements generally are not.
The Bottom Line: Until there are research trials looking at the SAFETY of supplementing lycopene, EAT THE FOODS that contain lycopene. The best source of lycopene is processed tomato products such as tomato juice, tomato sauce, etc.
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
Oncology Nutrition Specialist & Epidemiologist