Headlines like this always make a scientist like me sit up and take notice. As regular readers will be aware, I am not in favour of removing or concentrating one thing from a plant and expecting it to do the same thing in the body that a whole food would do. I was therefore interested to read an article that one of the tabloids put forward a couple of weeks ago, with the usual hype that only the tabloids can bring us.
According to the Daily Mirror, “Tomato super pill could hold the key to beating strokes, heart attacks and even cancer.”
OK, let’s get this straight. A pill that takes lycopene, a fat soluble carotenoid that is not a vitamin A precursor, combines it with something to make it more bioavailable (more on this later) and is tested on just 36 people, is now something that’s going to be the cure for all our ills? The article even goes as far as to state that lycopene is thought to be one of the main health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Umm… since when, exactly?
Let’s have a closer look at this so-called wonder pill shall we? It’s called Ateronon, is made by a company called CamNutra, and consists of the following (taken from the company’s website):
Tomato Extract (lycopene),Whey Protein (from milk), Soy
The capsule is made of Microcrystalline Cellulose, Gelatin, Calcium Phosphate, Silicon Dioxide, Polysorbate, Glyceryl Behenate, Colours (Red Iron Oxide, Titanium Dioxide)
Delving deeper, I found that the whey protein extract, present to make the product more bioavailable, is called lactolycopene and was patented by Nestle. The pill is basically a dairy product attached to lycopene, with some soy thrown in for good measure (one can only wonder why). Add in some red iron oxide (that’s rust, by the way) to make it a nice red colour, no doubt so that we “get” that it’s a special tomato pill, and you’re away. The whey protein that was “discovered” by food giant Nestle, in my opinion one of the most unethical companies in the world outside of Monsanto, is stated to make the pill equivalent to drinking a litre of tomato juice or eating 100g tomato paste.
It is true that high blood lycopene concentrations have been shown in various studies to reduce oxidised LDL and lower the risk of heart disease. However, extrapolating from just 36 people who took a pill containing a single antioxidant, when there are more than 25,000 such things present in food, is a bit like saying that if everyone turned off one light bulb per day we would stop global warming.
Delving deeper still, I found that Nestle are now conniving with l’Oreal to come up with “amazing nutritional products” under the label of Inneov. I searched information for the UK; to my relief there is none, so we are at least for now saved from this nonsense, but I checked out the Spanish site. Cue a video of a gorgeous woman, taking a bright red wonder pill. In the case of “Firmeza” (their soon to launch “revolutionary” skin firming treatment) we have not just one but 3 ground-breaking ingredients. Lactolycopene (tomato pill and patented dairy product), Vitamin C (really? Come on – hardly earth shattering, and I bet it’s ascorbic acid and not proper vitamin C) and, wait for it, soy isoflavones, just to really screw up your hormones and mess with your oestrogen:progesterone ratios. OK folks, no doubt people will be taken in by the hype. In my opinion – it’s NOT worth it.
Let’s return to the tomato pill versus proper food argument. Since tomatoes also contain vitamins, potassium, and other carotenoids and antioxidants, it may well be that other compounds in tomatoes account for some of the protective effects first thought to be due to lycopene. These compounds may act alone or together with lycopene. When researchers look at large population groups with different lifestyles and habits, it is also possible that their findings can be explained by other factors that were not examined. A recent Harvard study in 28,000 women (that’s a much more sensible group size for a study, thank you!) showed that those with the highest blood lycopene levels were 50% less likely to develop heart disease over a 5 year period than the women with the lowest levels.
Whether lycopene supplements are as beneficial as whole food sources is highly debatable, according to scientists at Ohio State University, who suggest that taking a lycopene pill is “misguided”. Their study in rats, in which lycopene supplemented animals fared only marginally better than controls when prostate cancer was induced, indicated that it was the whole tomato and not just the lycopene that was relevant. Rats that received tomato powder, which contained the full spectrum of nutrients and not just the lycopene, were a significant 26% less likely to die.
But lycopene won’t do any harm, will it? That depends. Whilst studies indicate that 15mg or less of lycopene is unlikely to trigger adverse effects, the same is not true in higher doses. One study in which people took more than 30mg daily indicated the following:
Immune system imbalance. Taking too much lycopene has the ability to hamper the functioning of the immune system and thus affect how the body protects and repairs itself. The body will develop an inability to fight off common microbes, bacteria, viruses, and diseases which can cause problems such as fever and inflammation.
Deteriorating prostate cancer. Recent studies are showing that isolated lycopene supplementation can worsen an already existing prostate cancer. It is also believed to increase the risk of lung cancer and other diseases, particularly in smokers. Remember the famous study in which isolated beta carotene supplementation increased death rates in smokers in Finland? Looks like isolated lycopene could be a similar story.
Allergic reaction. There are some people who are allergic to lycopene. This may present itself in the form of an itch, chest constriction or swelling. Other reported allergic reactions include skin hives and rashes.
Intestinal problems. One study has shown that some subjects who consumed 30mg of lycopene daily experienced intestinal problems such as bloating, gas, indigestion, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea.
Change in skin color. One of the long term effects that have been experienced by a number of consumers is a change in their skin colour, which becomes orange. Whilst this is not thought to lead to any specific health challenges, it is an indication that we are probably doing something wrong.
Bearing all this is mind, what is the answer? Do we supplement or not? If so, with what? My answer remains the same – with WHOLE FOOD. We know that it is insanity to expect that isolated beta carotene will give the same benefits as eating carrots. We know that synthetic ascorbic acid is NOT vitamin C and can cause kidney damage. How long will it take us to realise that we cannot outsmart nature? Everyone wants a quick fix. No one wants to put in the work. But if we want the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, we have to, funnily enough, eat the Mediterranean diet. If we want the health levels that we find in raw food eaters, we have to do the chewing. Whilst I happily admit that I use food supplements, I will be the first to say that they come from whole plants, nothing isolated. And yes, one of the ones that I use has been shown in a study, published as far back as 1996 in the journal Current Therapeutic Research, to raise blood lycopene levels by a massive 2046%. But the reason for this is that the supplement contains whole tomatoes, not just the lycopene. See the difference?
It is great to know that our food contains all these miraculous nutrients that can have specific benefits for us in our fight against degenerative disease. I love plants for this very reason – we continue to find new and wonderful chemicals in them that are massively beneficial for our health, when we combine them in the correct ratios with all of the other hugely important nutrients in food that we already know about. 10 years ago it was stated that there were approximately 12,000 antioxidants and phytonutrients in plants. Today we are told it is likely to be nearer 25,000. Who knows how many we will discover in the next decade? You can’t take 25,000 pills. Even if you did, it’s not the same as eating, and juicing, proper food. Ditch the tomato pills and do the things that we already know prevent heart attacks, strokes and cancer. Eat a raw or high raw vegan diet. Juice and eat your greens every day. Eat plants from every colour of the rainbow. Reduce your stress levels in whatever way works best for you. Get active and exercising, and, most important of all, be happy.