Lycopene is a carotenoid pigment, found in tomatoes and other red fruits, like watermelon, papaya, pink grapefruit and pink guava. Its name is derived from the tomato’s species classification, Solanum lycopersicum.
Carotenoids are the principal pigments responsible for the colors of vegetables and fruits: these include β-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene which is responsible for the red colour of red tomatoes and other fruits it is found in.
Lycopene, similar to other carotenoids, is a natural fat-soluble pigment (red, in the case of lycopene) which is synthesised by some plants and micro-organisms but not by animals, where it serves as an accessory light-gathering pigment and to protect these organisms against the toxic effects of oxygen and light.
Lycopene is the most common carotenoid in the human body and is one of the most potent carotenoid antioxidants.
Fruits and vegetables that are high in lycopene include not only tomatoes, but watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, and rosehip. In the European diet, however, more than 90% of the lycopene intake comes from tomatoes and tomato products.
Lycopene and other antioxidants are present in the red, ripe, tomatoes. Weather, soil, varieties, and agricultural practices all have an effect on the content of lycopene and other carotenoids in the fresh tomato and processing and storage conditions also affect the lycopene content in the final product as well as its bioavailability.
Unlike other micronutrients, such as vitamin C, lycopene content does not decrease during processing. In fact, the processing of tomatoes increases the lycopene content because of the concentration operations and, more importantly, it makes it more bioavailable. Because lycopene is so insoluble in water and is so tightly bound to vegetable fibre, the bioavailablity of lycopene is increased by processing. For example cooking and crushing tomatoes (as in the canning process) and serving in oil-rich dishes (such as pasta sauce or pizza) greatly increases assimilation from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.
In short, the processing of tomatoes (either through cooking at home, or industrially) to products such as tomato juice, soup, sauce, and ketchup (those which include oil) produces the highest concentrations of bioavailable lycopene.