Back in the early 1980s, the Secretary of Agriculture suggested that ketchup should be considered a vegetable. Nutritionists (and critics of then-President Ronald Reagan) were outraged. But in the decades since then, there has been a lot of research showing that a chemical component found in tomatoes called lycopene (LIKE-a-peen) is associated with a number of significant health benefits in men.
Lycopene produces the red color found in tomato products (yes, including ketchup and pizza sauce), red wine, papaya, watermelon, and red peppers.
Previous research has found that lycopene is a very powerful antioxidant (which protects our cells from the kind of damage that can lead to a variety of disease and health risks. And a growing body of research suggests that lycopene may reduce inflammation (swelling) and blood clots. Studies have also found that men with high levels of lycopene had a lower risk of heart attack because the lycopene interfered with LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) to produce the gunk that clogs arteries and can lead to heart attacks.
In a brand new study, researchers in Finland investigated the connection between lycopene and reduced risk of stroke. Jouni Karppi and his colleagues at the University of Eastern Finland followed more than 1000 men ages 46-65 for 12 years and tracked the levels of lycopene and several other chemicals (Vitamins A and E, alpha- and beta-carotene) in their blood.
Over the course of the study, 25 men out of the 250 with the lowest level of lycopene had strokes. Only 11 men out of the 259 with the highest levels strokes.
As with any research, there are still some unknowns. For example, although tomatoes are by far the most common source of lycopene, the study didn’t look at where the men in the study got theirs.
Researchers, nutritionists, and other health experts are also quick to point out that while there a connection, it’s not completely clear that it was lycopene that lowered the stroke risk. For example, the men with the highest levels of lycopene were the ones who at the most fruits and vegetables (at least five servings per day). And people who eat a lot of fruits and veggies are probably more likely to be doing other things to improve their health such as getting more exercise and reducing their stress levels.
We suggest that you do the same. And while we won’t go so far as to say that ketchup and pizza sauce are vegetables, an occasional serving won’t hurt you (unless your doctor has told you otherwise). But watch out: The fat and calories in hot dogs and cheese may more than offset any benefit you might enjoy from the ketchup and sauce.