Food scientists at Ohio State University in Columbus have grown a special variety of orange tomatoes that may be healthier than garden-variety red tomatoes. The orange tomatoes contain a type of lycopene that is more readily used by the body than the type found in red tomatoes, they report.
Lycopene -- an antioxidant thought to have a number of health benefits such as reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and age-related eye problems -- is what gives red tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables their rich color.
Dr. Steven Schwartz and colleagues had 12 adult volunteers eat two spaghetti test meals on separate occasions. One meal was made with sauce from the orange tomatoes and the other with sauce from red tomatoes. For 13 days before the test meals, the volunteers avoided eating tomatoes or food made with them.
Blood samples taken from each subject right before the spaghetti meals and every hour or two up to 10 hours after the meals were analyzed for lycopene content.
Results showed that lycopene absorption from the orange tomato sauce was 2.5 times higher than that absorbed from the red tomato sauce. Blood lycopene levels spiked about 5 hours after the orange tomato sauce meal and at this time the levels were some 200 times higher than those seen after the red tomato sauce meal.
"While red tomatoes contain far more lycopene than orange tomatoes, most of it is in a form that the body doesn't absorb well," Schwartz, a professor of food science and technology at Ohio State, explained in a university-issued statement.
"The people in the study actually consumed less lycopene when they ate sauce made from the orange tomatoes, but they absorbed far more lycopene than they would have if it had come from red tomatoes," he noted.
The orange tomatoes are not readily available at grocery stores; they were grown at an Ohio State-affiliated agricultural research center. Schwartz and colleagues suggest that interested consumers could seek out orange or gold-colored heirloom tomatoes as an alternative -- although they haven't tested how much or what kind of lycopene these varieties contain.
SOURCE: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2007.