Tomatoes Better Than a Pill for Heart Disease

January 1, 2015 Updated: January 1, 2015

Western medicine has trouble recognizing the health and healing power of whole foods.  Instead scientists engage in an endless quest to identify, isolate and extract components from foods and deliver them by needle or pill. 

But a new study from Harvard and the University of California at Davis lends more support for the idea that a whole food is more powerful than the sum of its parts.

Researchers reviewed all of the cardiovascular disease studies on tomatoes and lycopene.  Scientists have long speculated that lycopene is the primary reason that tomatoes are associated with reduced cardiovascular disease.  And in fact, lycopene has been shown in epidemiologic studies to be inversely related to cardiovascular disease. 

In Western countries tomatoes are the richest source of dietary lycopene. And studies show there is a strong link between the amount of tomatoes people eat and the amount of lycopene in their blood.

These researchers asked whether taking lycopene supplements is as effective or even more effective than getting lycopene by eating tomatoes when it comes to heart health.

The researchers first looked at the effect of lycopene and tomatoes on oxidized LDL cholesterol.  They found that whole tomatoes had a modest benefit over lycopene in protecting against oxidative stress that affects LDL cholesterol.  They also found three tomato studies and one lycopene study showing improvements in HDL cholesterol. 

Tomatoes also proved to have more powerful antioxidants in general.  More data supported eating tomatoes as a way to reduce oxidative damage in lipids, proteins, and DNA.

The researchers could find few studies that addressed the effect of tomatoes or lycopene on endothelial function.  But one study did find that lycopene beat statins in improving blood vessel function.  

(lsantilli, iStock/Thinkstock)
(lsantilli, iStock/Thinkstock)


When it comes to blood pressure, the researchers found promising evidence for both lycopene supplementation and tomatoes for improving systolic and diastolic blood pressure. But this was the only area where lycopene supplements seemed to have an edge over tomatoes.

In 3 of 5 lycopene supplement studies, 15 mg of lycopene for six to eight weeks lowered blood pressure in patients with stage 1 hypertension. 

In three other studies, eating 200 grams (about one cup) of raw tomatoes for eight weeks lowered blood pressure in patients with type 2 diabetes.  And although other studies didn’t find the same benefits, the researchers speculated that tomatoes may be most effective for people with higher blood pressure rather than for those with relatively healthy levels to begin with.