8 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Rich in Lycopene, a Plant Compound Known To Boost Heart Health and Longevity

Photo: Stocksy/Vera Lair
You may have come across the saying “eat the rainbow,” which advocates for eating a diverse and colorful group of nutrient-dense foods. But have you ever wondered what exactly gives foods their color? We can thank compounds that act as antioxidants, including polyphenols and flavonoids, for that. One key colorful compound to know about are carotenoids, which are yellow, orange, or red fat-soluble pigments found in fruits and vegetables that act as potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in our bodies.

While different types of carotenoids exist, lycopene is one form that gives certain fruits and veggies their vibrant red to light pink color in foods, such as red tomatoes and watermelon. “Lycopene is an antioxidant that has been linked to improving blood pressure and cardiovascular health, reducing cholesterol, and fighting a variety of cancers,” says Laura Iu, RDN, CDN, CNSC, RYT, a registered dietitian and founder of Laura Iu Nutrition. Considering heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the United States, integrating lycopene-rich foods can be one form of disease prevention. While there is currently no Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for lycopene, Iu says that eight to 21 milligrams per day is a good range to aim for for optimal benefits.

Experts In This Article

Lycopene benefits

During the metabolic process, our bodies naturally produce unstable molecules called free radicals. “When these free radicals build up in the body, it can cause damage to the cells. So by consuming foods with lycopene, we are helping fight off the free radicals and prevent further damage to healthy cells,” Iu explains. This process, in turn, combats symptoms of chronic inflammation that are linked to long-term health consequences, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's.

Fresh, canned, and sun-dried fruits and vegetables can be great sources of lycopene. "In fact, various processing methods can actually enhance lycopene bioavailability in specific foods by breaking down the cell walls," says Iu. So even if you can’t grab fresh produce, other options may offer higher sources of lycopene than you think.

Although there are currently no known risks or side effects of consuming lycopene from food, Iu suggests consulting with your healthcare provider before taking supplements and prioritizing a food-first regime to reap the many health benefits of lycopene.

8 lycopene-rich foods that can help increase longevity

Since food labels do not highlight which foods contain lycopene, Iu shared with us eight foods that are considered great sources of lycopene. If possible, try to consume fat with foods that contain lycopene for optimal nutrient absorption.

1. Tomatoes

Tomatoes and processed tomato products are both great sources of lycopene, but processed tomato products surprisingly having a higher bioavailability than fresh tomatoes. When looking at different tomato products, Iu says that these options containing the most lycopene per 100 grams:

  • Sun-dried tomatoes: 45.9 miligrams
  • Tomato purée: 21.8 miligrams
  • Fresh tomatoes: 3.0 milligrams
  • Canned tomatoes offer 2.7 milligrams.

This fresh tomato galette is a nutritionist's go-to recipe rich in lycopene:

2. Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are already known for being excellent sources of vitamin A, fiber, and contributing to glowing skin, but they’re also great sources of lycopene. They can serve as a great post-workout snack, a side dish (sweet potato fries all day, please), or added to a coconut curry dish.

You can also incorporate sweet potatoes into desserts, like this delicious fudgy brownie recipe:

3. Pink grapefruit

Half of a grapefruit contains around two milligrams of lycopene and is also considered a great source of vitamin C. We love how versatile pink grapefruits are; they can be added to both sweet and savory dishes or used in drinks like the refreshing mocktail recipe below. They can also be used to make frozen desserts, salads, or on their own for a morning snack.

Try adding pink grapefruit to this mood-boosting mocktail recipe:

4. Blood oranges

Unlike standard oranges, blood oranges have a floral or tart flavor and a darker color due to its lycopene content. This is also an example of a food that can work well in an array of dishes, from a citrus salad or salmon marinate to smoothies and homemade popsicles.

Use blood oranges to make this cranberry orange compote for major lycopene benefits:

5. Watermelon

Watermelon is not only a refreshing snack during the warmer months, but it can also contain just as much or more lycopene than raw tomatoes, depending on variety and growing conditions. A cup and a half of watermelon contains nine to 13 milligrams of lycopene.

Name a more festive way to eat lycopene than this watermelon cake. We'll wait:

6. Papaya

Not only can papaya help relieve indigestion and constipation, but it’s also a good source of lycopene. Add papaya to your morning smoothie, have as a hydrating snack, or add it to a fresh salsa.

7. Guava

Guava is a delicious tropical fruit with a yellow or light green skin and deep red or pink fresh. According to Iu, this powerful fruit contains over five milligrams of lycopene per 100 grams, and contains vitamin C, vitamin A, and omega-3s. You can opt to eat guava on its own or added into a nice glaze for meats.

8. Red bell peppers

Red bell peppers are super versatile and can be added to almost any dish, from tofu scrambles and avocado toast to sandwiches, wraps, and grain bowls. In addition to containing lycopene, they’re also considered a hydrating snack considering bell peppers are 92 percent water.

Toss bell peppers into this vibrant peach and avocado salad:

Bottom line? There are plenty of ways to get your daily dose of lycopene, whether it be through tomato products or sweeter options, like watermelon. The key is finding which options you like the most to add to your meals for the week.

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