A long-term study has found that people who routinely eat a lot of tomatoes are less likely to suffer strokes. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that scientists believe reduces the risk of heart disease.
Researchers followed the dietary habits of more than 1,000 men living near the University of Eastern Finland. The subjects were divided into four groups based on how much lycopene was measured in their blood at the start of the study. After more than a dozen years, there were 25 strokes in a group of 258 men with the lowest levels of lycopene, compared to just 11 strokes in the high-lycopene group of 259 males, a reduction in stroke risk of 55 percent.
Larry Goldstein, director of the Duke University Stroke Center in Durham, North Carolina, believes lycopene may reduce the risk of stroke by protecting cells against the damaging effects of free radicals. These are harmful molecules produced by the breakdown of food and toxic environmental substances such as tobacco smoke and radiation. Experts say antioxidants can reduce the inflammation and blood clotting that can lead to stroke.
Goldstein says lycopene is a powerful antioxidant.
“Having said that, other ..compounds in that class really haven’t been associated with reduced risk of stroke. So, again, this is an area for further research," said Goldstein.
Lycopene is the substance in fruits and vegetables that gives them their bright red or orange color, including not only tomatoes but red peppers, papayas and watermelon.
Goldstein cautions that studies such as the one carried out in Finland have to be repeated to confirm the results. He says participants questioned at the beginning of the study a dozen years ago may not remember what they ate over the course of the investigation, and the findings would need to be repeated in different populations - and in groups of women, as well - to draw any firm conclusions.
What has been established, according to Goldstein, is that taking lycopene supplements does not appear to reduce the risk of stroke.
“So it may be something else that we are not measuring that really is leading to the better outcomes," he said.
The American Heart Association recommends a daily diet of five servings of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes.
An article on lycopene and the reduced risk of stroke is published in the journal Neurology.