Tomatoes and Lycopene: To Cook, or Not to Cook?
Tomatoes and Lycopene: To Cook, or Not to Cook?
There have been countless articles floating around the Internet discussing how lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, is somehow more available in cooked tomatoes than in raw ones. From these clickbait headlines we find broad claims being made that cooking is somehow necessary in order to make foods more nutritious. It is so confusing for people who are trying to get healthy and go plant-based, especially when they begin to learn about a raw vegan diet.
Headline-friendly tidbits about lycopene fail to reveal the full picture. Let’s dig deeper to gain a better understanding of what is going on.
Yes, lycopene can be more concentrated and somewhat more bioavailable in cooked tomatoes. But why? Does heat create this phenomenon? And, more importantly, are we somehow failing our bodies if we stick to eating raw tomatoes?
Here are some key takeaways without getting too bogged down in plant chemistry:
- Cooking tomatoes removes water from them. When you remove water from tomatoes, everything else in them becomes more concentrated, including flavor and certain nutrients such as lycopene.
- Cooking tomatoes softens fiber. Lycopene binds to fiber, so softening fiber during the cooking process can make lycopene more bioavailable.
- Pureeing or juicing raw tomatoes also softens/breaks up fiber, which also increases bioavailability of lycopene.
- Dehydrating raw tomatoes reduces their water content, thus concentrating the amount of lycopene in similar format to cooking.
- Fat assists with absorption of lycopene, so add a little healthy fat to your tomato dishes from time to time, such as avocado or hemp seeds.
More research is needed in this area, as with studying raw foods in general, but it’s important to note that lycopene is but ONE antioxidant available in plant foods. When you follow a balanced, raw, plant-based diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, your meals will be packed with high levels of antioxidants every day. The more fresh plants you eat, the more you feed your immune system with the nutritional tools it needs to function at maximum capacity.
On a raw food diet we tend to eat far greater quantities of all fruits and vegetables than in our cooked food days. I now eat more tomatoes in one sitting than I used to eat in a month! Obtaining adequate lycopene is really the least of my worries. In fact, it’s a non-issue.
There are certain trendy topics people tend to bring up when discussing raw foods or sometimes just a vegan diet in general:
“Where do you get your protein?”
“But what about lycopene?”
“Where do you get your calcium and iron?”
“I heard raw leafy greens have oxalates that cause gout!”
“Fruit has too much sugar and makes you fat!”
“Eating fruit grows cancer!”
It’s overwhelming, right?
Buzz phrases and popular headlines or controversies dominate people’s thinking, and I don’t blame people for feeling confused or fearful as a result.
We live in a world packed with so much information that it’s hard to know when or how to really drill down and obtain an accurate picture. I advise you to be a little wary of buzz-worthy headlines; don’t just take them at face value.
Also pay attention to people who have been thriving on a plant-based diet for many years. Listen to what they have to say, and learn how they do it. Connect with conscientious educators who care deeply about providing the best information available. And we remain diligent students ourselves, too. (The best teachers are always learning.)
Let’s ditch this distracting red herring lycopene issue once and for all. There. I said it. Now go and enjoy your raw tomatoes! Chop them up in a salsa or salad, juice them in a green juice, or eat them one after the other straight out of your summer garden (my favorite way). The issue of lycopene in tomatoes, to cook or not to cook, is simply not a question. You can and will get plenty of lycopene from raw tomatoes on a healthy and balanced raw food diet.
Or, if you are not fully raw, you can certainly enjoy some cooked tomatoes in a low-fat vegan soup. I don’t judge! Being raw is not a contest or a badge of honor, or a clique or exclusive club. It’s a way of life designed to bring you joy and health. I support you exactly where you are while providing you with informational tools to help you make the best decisions for your diet, and your life.
Support overall health with fresh vegetables and fruits every day.
Beyond lycopene, focus on supporting your total health by eating a broad variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. Cut out processed foods high in animal fats, animal proteins, high-heated oils, refined sugars, caffeine, low-quality salts, artificial ingredients, refined flours, and dairy, and then watch what happens. You, too, might determine that lycopene is not a significant concern as you begin to fully enjoy the benefits of a raw plant-based diet and lifestyle.
Yours in good heath,
1. Cis-Lycopene Is More Bioavailable Than Trans-Lycopene In Vitro and In Vivo in Lymph-Cannulated Ferrets
2. The Science of Raw Food Nutrition II (Get the book here via my Amazon store, it’s a great read.)
by Drs. Rick and Karin Dina
3. TURNING UP THE HEAT ON TOMATOES BOOSTS ABSORPTION OF LYCOPENE
4. Lycopene in tomatoes: chemical and physical properties affected by food processing.
5. How Lycopene Helps Protect Against Cancer