‘Tomato pills’ for cardio health?

New study helps unravel mechanism through which the Mediterranean diet promotes health.

A growing library of research supports the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Wave after wave of cookbooks and new products based on the plan wash up on the shelves like tides from the European sea. But exactly how that diet affects our bodies had remained a mystery … until now. A new study brings us a bit closer to revealing the crux of the Mediterranean health holy grail—and it might be contained in tomatoes.

New research from the University of Cambridge helps explain the mechanism by which lycopene, the powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes and other fruit, works to reduce cardiovascular risk. The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

Researchers conducted a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study measuring the effects of daily lycopene supplementation on the blood vessels in the forearm of 72 subjects. Half the subjects had cardiovascular disease, the other half were healthy volunteers. The condition of the blood vessels studied, called forearm blood flow, is considered a marker for blood vessel function. Researchers looked specifically at any changes in the subjects’ endothelium—the inner lining of the blood vessels. Endothelial function predicts future cardiovascular events.

The scientists found that 7 mg of lycopene supplementation improved endothelial function in the subjects with heart disease but not in the healthy volunteers. In fact, lycopene improved the widening of the blood vessels by over a half (53 percent) in those taking the pill, according to a university press release about the study. However, the supplement had no effect on blood pressure, arterial stiffness or levels of lipids.

"We've shown quite clearly that lycopene improves the function of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease patients," said Dr. Joseph Cheriyan, consultant clinical pharmacologist and physician at Addenbrooke's Hospital and Associate Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, in the press release. "It reinforces the need for a healthy diet in people at risk from heart disease and stroke. A daily 'tomato pill' is not a substitute for other treatments, but may provide added benefits when taken alongside other medication. However, we cannot answer if this may reduce heart disease—this would need much larger trials to investigate outcomes more carefully."

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