Nutrition is Not a Top Ten Proposition and the Lycopene Bust

Posted on 09 Aug 2010 02:28

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I'm going to give you three vegetables. You pick the best one.

  • Tomatoes
  • Green (Bell) Peppers
  • Spinach

Now I'm going to give you three more. Pick the best one again.

  • Green (Bell) Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

Would you like to do it again? I guess not.

The best vegetable in the first list is green peppers. Surprise! The best vegetable in the second list is spinach. If I had put okra in that list okra would have won. I loves me some okra. Fried okra. Okra in soup. Gumbo. Yes sir. I even love the sort of slimy thing it has going on.

I wasn't really trying to trick you. I was making a point. In the first food list I was aiming for total antioxidant content. Any antioxidant. Would you have guessed that if I had placed RED bell peppers in that list green peppers still would have won? Despite the colorful cartenoids. That's right. If I was going for carotene and writing a list about "how to improve your eyesight" the red peppers would have been way at the top of the list! If I were to make a list like that, which I wouldn't.

In the second list I was aiming for calcium and magnesium content. So spinach wins the day. So which is more nutritious? It simply depends on your parameters and it is exactly why there does not yet exist a way to systematically rate food in terms of health and nutrition. Oh, believe me people are working on it. But it ain't easy. Foods are not magic health bullets. Green peppers, spinach, and tomatoes are all great vegetables. It would have been easy to make tomatoes win one too, wouldn't it?


potted green bell pepper plant with peppers

The Humble Green Pepper
image by byrdiegyrl via Flickr

potted green bell pepper plant with peppers

The Humble Green Pepper
image by byrdiegyrl via Flickr



The point then is that top ten (or twenty) lists of the "best" vegetables or any other foods are not useful EXCEPT for the people who write them. And they write them because they know that "lists" are big hits on the webernet. It's web marketing 101. Make a list and they will come. And talk. I really want to show you how very useless such lists can be. Have I done so yet? What about if I had manipulated my list to make tomatoes win? I pick another cartenoid, lycopene. You've heard about the lycopene in tomatoes, it is so hyped it's being added to multi-vitamins and stand alone products and adding a big chunk to the Billion dollar supplement industry.

Is it the Lycopene or the Tomatoes Themselves? Or is it a Complex Recipe?

So, you are tempted to take one of those very heavily promoted lycopene supplements because you are concerned about prostate cancer and you've heard that lycopene may help prevent prostate cancer. Heck, it's showing up in all the fancy multi-vitamins and they must have a reason for putting it in there, right?

But, you also know that one of the big deal foods with lycopene is tomatoes. Especially cooked tomatoes as in tomato sauce or concentrated tomato products. Which have more lycopene. And there are a whole lot of other chemicals. Maybe all that other stuff plays a role as well.

What if someone decided to test this? Well they have. On rats at least. What kind of things were found? It boils down to the one lesson. There is never ONE magical ingredient for health.

Supposing the results of rat studies can be extrapolated to human beings, What if you take lycopene with a crappy diet in which you eat as much as you want, whatever you want. You may decrease the chance of prostate cancer just a little bit. And if you already have it you may slow the growth of the tumor cells just a tiny bit.

Say, instead, you ate lots of tomatoes and tomato products, especially Italian style tomato sauces with good old Olive Oil added to the mix, which could enhance the absorption of lycopene, and give you some other good stuff along with the other good stuff in the tomatoes. Well, you'd reduce your risk more than with just the lycopene supplement.

What if, you did the tomato thing instead of the lycopene supplement but you also ate less and the foods you ate were healthier? You'd reduce your risk even more. You could live longer (at least tiny bit, anyway). What if you added broccoli to the mix. Even better. Now, say you did that but you exercised regularly? You'd have a chance of living even longer.

So, should we say that tomatoes prevent prostate cancer? Tomato product producers would love to be able to say so. They think they should be able to say this on the labels and that there is plenty of evidence to support the claim. A number of "qualified health claims" were proposed by the Heinz Company, for instance:

1. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, tomato lycopene may reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

2. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, tomato lycopene may reduce the risk of prostate cancer when consumed as part of a healthy diet."

3. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, tomato products, which contain lycopene, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

4. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, tomatoes and tomato products, which contain lycopene, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

5. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, tomato products, which contain lycopene, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer when consumed as part of a healthy diet."

6. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, tomatoes and tomato products, which contain lycopene, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer when consumed as part of a healthy diet."

7. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, lycopene in tomato products may reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

8. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, lycopene in tomatoes and tomato products may reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

9. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, lycopene in tomato products may reduce the risk of prostate cancer when consumed as part of a healthy diet."

10. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, lycopene in tomatoes and tomato products may reduce the risk of prostate cancer when consumed as part of a healthy diet."

11. "Although the evidence is not conclusive, lycopene in fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and tomato products, may reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

Those are "health claims." A health claim characterizes a relationship between the substance in a food (whether whole, processed, or supplement) and a disease or health-related condition. A health-related condition is something that is considered "abnormal". According to the FDA, "A disease or health-related condition means damage to an organ, part, structure, or system of the body such that it does not function properly or a state of health leading to such dysfunctioning."

The FDA concluded, after reviewing all the evidence that there is no credible evidence to support a qualified health claim for tomato lycopene; tomatoes and tomato products, which contain lycopene; lycopene in tomatoes and tomato products; lycopene in fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and tomato products, and lycopene as a food ingredient, a component of food, or as a dietary supplement and reduced risk of prostate cancer. The agency therefore denied the health claim petition.

However, since they considered that there was very limited credible evidence for qualified health claims for tomatoes, the agency would consider a re-worded claim so as "not to mislead consumers." They thus considered the following claim:

"Very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim."

There is not, it is true, much evidence that the addition of tomatoes, alone, to the diet will result in a reduced risk of prostrate cancer or any of the other cancers variously claimed, such as cholo-rectal cancer. But there is even LESS evidence to support claims concerning lycopene itself. Lycopene alone, guess what, it's a bust, folks. It's in all the big multivitamins and I know you have heard of it. And you know it's in tomatoes. The association of lycopene with cancer prevention and its connection to tomatoes is well cemented in the public's consciousness. Heinz, of course, has done a lot to see to that. And your top ten or twenty lists on all the nutrition blogger's sites? You know the ones, they claim to have a bachelor's degree in nutrition and they know more than your doctor and of course they know more than the government. After all, they take their cues from the likes of ketchup makers and supplement companies. So, yeah, tomatoes or lycopene is on their list.

Nutrition is not a top ten proposition. Eat your vegetables. Eat the ones you love. Hey..good news, romaine lettuce has more beta carotene than spinach. I heard you hate spinach but love the romaine! But be warned, beta carotene may not be a one-to-one replacement for vitamin A, like you've read. Good news again, however, milk IS a good source of calcium so you don't have to get all your calcium from leafy greens.


This page created 09 Aug 2010 02:28
Last updated 21 Oct 2015 20:03

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