The deep red color
that is pren
tomatoes, pink grapefruit,
guava and watermelon is caused by lycopene, a carotenoid. Other
carotenoids include beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, which give
carrots their orange color. Carotenoids are fat soluble and so in the
human body are found in fatty tissue and transported by lipoproteins.
They act as dietary precursors to Vitamin A and aid the immune system.
However lycopene has a greater property than food colouring. It is a
strong antioxidant, which can help to combat degenerative diseases. It
was found that increased concentration of lycopene gave an increased
protective effect. However the human body cannot produce this molecule
and needs to obtain it from tomatoes in our diet.
It helps prevent degenerative diseases by donating its electrons to
oxygen free radicals thus quenching and neutralising them before they
can damage cells. Free radicals are molecules that have at least one
unpaired electron. By donating an electron lycopene can stabilise the
free molecule. There have been many recent studies into lycopene so
that it can be used to its fullest potential in fighting diseases. It
has been seen that lycopene can be used as an anti-carcinogen.
In the body, lycopene is deposited in the liver, lungs, prostate gland,
colon and skin. Its concentration in body tissues tends to be higher
than all other carotenoids. Some organs, such as the testes and adrenal
glands, store higher levels of lycopene than do other organs or tissues.
Lycopene is a phytochemical, synthesized by plants and microorganisms
but not by animals. It is an acyclic isomer of beta-carotene. This
highly unsaturated hydrocarbon contains 11 conjugated and 2
unconjugated double bonds, making it longer than any other carotenoid.
As a polyene, it undergoes cis-trans isomerization induced by light,
thermal energy, and chemical reactions. Lycopene obtained from plants
tends to exist in an all-trans configuration, the most
thermodynamically stable form. Humans cannot produce lycopene and must
ingest fruits, absorb the lycopene, and process it for use in the body.
In human plasma, lycopene is present as an isomeric mixture, with 50%
as cis isomers.
Although best known as an antioxidant, both oxidative
and non-oxidative mechanisms are involved in lycopene's bioprotective
activity. The nutraceutical activities of carotenoids such as
beta-carotene are related to their ability to form vitamin A within the
body. Since lycopene lacks a beta-ionone ring structure, it cannot form
vitamin A and its biological effects in humans have been attributed to
mechanisms other than vitamin A. Lycopene's configuration enables it to
inactivate free radicals. Because free radicals are electrochemically
imbalanced molecules, they are highly aggressive, ready to react with
cell components and cause permanent damage. Oxygen-derived free
radicals are the most reactive species. These toxic chemicals are
formed naturally as by-products during oxidative cellular metabolism.
As an antioxidant, lycopene has a singlet-oxygen-quenching ability
twice as high as that of beta-carotene (vitamin A relative) and ten
times higher than that of alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E relative). One
non-oxidative activity is regulation of gap-junction communication
between cells. Lycopene participates in a host of chemical reactions
hypothesized to prevent carcinogenesis and atherogenesis by protecting
critical cellular biomolecules, including lipids, proteins, and DNA.
Lycopene is the most predominant carotenoid in human plasma, present
naturally in greater amounts than beta-carotene and other dietary
carotenoids. This perhaps indicates its greater biological significance
in the human defense system. Its level is affected by several
biological and lifestyle factors. Because of its lipophilic nature,
lycopene concentrates in low-density and very-low-density lipoprotein
fractions of the serum. Lycopene is also found to concentrate in the
adrenal, liver, testes, and prostate. However, unlike other
carotenoids, lycopene levels in serum or tissues do not correlate well
with overall intake of fruits and vegetables.
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