Can Tomatoes Prevent Cancer?
An ideal food is one that pleases our taste buds and is good for our health. Tomatoes certainly appear to fall into that category. There is no doubt that spaghetti sauce, ketchup, and pizza are gustatory favorites. And in recent years we’ve seen a number of studies linking the consumption of tomato products to a reduced risk of cancer. We’ve even been privy to some rat experiments in which cancer was less readily induced if the animals were fed tomato products. It has generally been assumed that lycopene, the compound responsible for the red coloring of tomatoes, is the active component. In any case, such studies have prompted food producers to petition the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. to allow health claims on the labels of tomato products. After all, soy and oat containing foods can claim to be of help in reducing cholesterol and calcium supplements can claim to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. So why should tomato products not be able to make claims about reducing the risk of cancer? A valid question. And FDA has an answer. The evidence is just not enough to make an out and out cancer reduction claim. But, FDA agrees, there may be some health benefits to eating tomatoes. So it does allow somewhat wishy-washy claims such as “very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.” As far as lycopene itself goes, FDA has concluded that there is insufficient evidence for any association with cancer reduction.
Industry retorts that FDA is too stringent in its requirements, and that the lycopene evidence is indeed sufficient to allow for a health claim. But based on a study carried out by researchers at the National Cancer Institute and The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, it seems the FDA’s skepticism about lycopene is well founded. If lycopene does indeed offer protection from cancer, then people who have higher blood levels of this compound should be at reduced risk. But this does not appear to be the case. The researchers followed over 28,000 men between the ages of 55 and 74 who had no history of prostate cancer. During eight years of follow-up, 1320 of the men were diagnosed with prostate cancer, but no relationship was found between the blood levels of lycopene and occurrence of the disease. Of course, this is not the last word on this issue. We cannot just dismiss the studies that have shown an association between consuming tomatoes and protection from cancer. Let’s remember, though, that tomatoes are chemically complex and contain numerous compounds besides lycopene which may, either alone, or in combination with lycopene, act as anti-cancer agents. But perhaps the most important point to take away here is that the scientific evidence does not support the concept of a “superfood” or a “super” ingredient. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains are loaded with compounds that have shown a potential for protection from cancer. Loading up on any single food or supplement is not the answer. The key is to eat a variety of foods that contain these beneficial chemicals, including tomato products.