The ever-versatile tomato may do more than tempt your taste buds. Findings from an animal study suggest that lycopene, a member of the carotenoid family of pigments found primarily in tomatoes, may someday have a role in treating postmenopausal bone loss (osteoporosis). Published in the journal Bone, the study was performed using 264 female rats divided into two groups. One group received an operation that removed their ovaries, while the other group received a mock operation that did not remove their ovaries. The rats with no ovaries were then divided into five further groups: the first three groups received corn oil containing 15 mg, 30 mg, or 45 mg of lycopene, respectively; the fourth group received corn oil with no lycopene; and the fifth group received 2 μg/kg of alendronate (a drug commonly used to treat osteoporosis). The group of rats that still had their ovaries was given corn oil with no lycopene. All the rats received their treatment daily for 12 weeks. Researchers measured markers of bone loss in the rats to determine if the lycopene had any effect and found:
The ovary-free rats receiving lycopene had lower markers of bone turnover than the ovary-free rats not receiving lycopene. This finding suggests the lycopene may have prevented or slowed the bone turnover that naturally occurs in the absence of ovarian hormones.
The ovary-free rats receiving lycopene also experienced a smaller drop in bone mass and bone strength, and showed less evidence of bone deterioration, than the ovary-free rats not receiving lycopene.
While this research is interesting, it’s important to note that similar research in humans is needed before lycopene supplements should be recommended to prevent postmenopausal bone loss. In addition, this relatively short three-month study does not demonstrate the long-term effects that lycopene may have on bone loss. Lycopene is an antioxidant and researchers are also exploring its potential benefits for reducing high blood pressure, preventing asthma symptoms, protecting the heart and blood vessels, and preventing some cancers. In the meantime, since the amounts of lycopene used in this study could easily be achieved through diet alone, it might not hurt to add tomatoes to your next meal.