When you sink your teeth into a nice juicy tomato, you're ingesting a good dose of vitamins as well as lycopene, a natural pigment that gives the fruit its red color. Studies show that this substance may reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
For a clearer picture of the possible beneficial effects of lycopene in the tomato, more research is needed. After all, how do you know how much lycopene is in a vine tomato? And how many tomatoes should you eat to really get a health effect?
Jara van den Bogaerde is Scientist Co-innovation at BASF's vegetable seeds business. She is involved in a study on the lycopene content in tomatoes through the top sector project 'The Value(s) of Fruit and Vegetables'.
What is lycopene anyway?
Lycopene is a phytonutrient; a plant substance that provides the red color of the tomato. Several studies show that eating fruits and vegetables that contain lycopene may have a beneficial effect on health. The human body cannot produce this substance itself, but must get it from plant foods.
What is so special about this substance?
Lycopene has both an antioxidant as well as an anti-inflammatory effect in our body. In our project, we are mainly researching this anti-inflammatory, or anti-inflammatory effect of lycopene. Continuously high inflammation levels in our blood, caused in part by an unhealthy lifestyle, contribute to the development of lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Lycopene from tomatoes can possibly lower the inflammation values in our blood and thus reduce the risk of developing lifestyle diseases. So interesting for further research!
So we should all start eating a lot of tomatoes?
It is clear that tomatoes are healthy. The exact effect of lycopene we are now going to better picture. There are a lot of factors that we need to take into account in this research. The content of lycopene can differ in each type of tomato - from cherry and vine tomatoes to beef tomatoes. And then, within those types of tomatoes, you have different varieties, all of which can also contain totally different levels of lycopene. To make things even more complicated, the way you grow a tomato can also affect its lycopene content.
That sounds like a complicated puzzle. Which puzzle piece do you start with?
The first step is to determine how much lycopene is in the different tomato types and varieties. For example, is the lycopene content in a vine tomato different than in a snack tomato? We at BASF have provided eight different varieties for research and the first results are promising: we really see differences in the content of lycopene in the different varieties and types of tomatoes.
That's great, but what can you do with that?
If you know which species and varieties contain a lot of lycopene, then you can use the cultivation and / or breeding to see how you can increase the lycopene content even further. Through targeted breeding it is even possible to create varieties that always produce the desired amount of lycopene. A grower can - with the right cultivation protocol - bring a product to market with a guaranteed high lycopene content. This means that we must be able to accurately measure the level of lycopene in the product. That measurement is the final part of the research.
It is not yet possible to measure, for example, the lycopene content in a tomato?
Measuring is already possible, but it is a costly affair. You have to send samples to a laboratory and then it takes a few weeks before you get the results. That's why, within this project, we want to develop two innovative measuring methods that are more efficient, quicker and cheaper and that allow the grower to check - on the spot - what and how much is in his product. We are looking at what is already possible, what measuring methods there are and how we can improve them further. Within this project we also want to develop an innovative challenge model to investigate the anti-inflammatory effects of fruit and vegetables in an easy way.
What is that: an innovative challenge model?
This challenge model should make it possible to look at the whole picture of health, instead of one small effect of one substance. We are investigating whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the intake of certain nutrients and health effects. Later, when there is a validated model, you can apply it to different fruits and vegetables.
Why is this research important for BASF?
The tomato is one of the most popular (fruit) vegetables in the Netherlands. The focus in cultivation was for a long time on as much yield as possible - in kilos - per square meter, but consumers are raising other issues. The Dutch are becoming increasingly aware of the influence of food on health and want to know what is in a product. Large population studies show that eating fruits and vegetables can contribute positively to health, but it is difficult for companies to explain exactly what their products contain and why they are healthy. This is what we want to change with this research. Our ambition is to make healthy food attractive and sustainable for people, partners and our planet. This research makes our ambition more tangible and achievable. It can support consumers in choosing a healthy diet.
More information about the project and partners can be found on the project website: www.waardenvangroentenenfruit.nl