Lycopene, tomatoes, and the prevention of coronary heart disease

Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2002 Nov;227(10):908-13. doi: 10.1177/153537020222701011.


Coronary heart disease (CHD) is one of the primary causes of death in the Western world. The emphasis so far has been on the relationship between serum cholesterol levels and the risk of CHD. More recently, oxidative stress induced by reactive oxygen species (ROS) is also considered to play an important part in the etiology of this disease. Oxidation of the circulating low-density lipoprotein (LDL(ox)) is thought to play a key role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis and CHD. According to this hypothesis, macrophages inside the arterial wall take up the LDL(ox) and initiate the process of plaque formation. Dietary antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene have been shown in in vitro studies to prevent the formation of LDL(ox) and their uptake by microphages. In a recent study, healthy human subjects ingesting lycopene, a carotenoid antioxidant, in the form of tomato juice, tomato sauce, and oleoresin soft gel capsules for 1 week had significantly lower levels of LDL(ox) compared with controls. The antioxidant effects of lycopene have also been shown in four other human trials, including one where lycopene consumption reduced the levels of breath pentane. However, in one recent study, dietary supplementation with beta-carotene but not with lycopene was shown to inhibit LDL oxidation. The sources of lycopene used in most of these studies were either tomato products or lycopene extracted from tomatoes containing other carotenoids in various proportions. Therefore, it is not possible to attribute the effects solely to lycopene. Mechanisms other than the antioxidant properties of lycopene have also been shown to reduce the risk of CHD. Lycopene was shown to inhibit the activity of an essential enzyme involved in cholesterol synthesis in an in vitro and a small clinical study suggesting a hypocholesterolemic effect. Other possible mechanisms include enhanced LDL degradation, LDL particle size and composition, plaque rupture, and altered endothelial functions. Recent epidemiological studies have also shown an inverse relationship between tissue and serum levels of lycopene and mortality from CHD, cerebrovascular disease, and myocardial infraction. However, the most impressive population-based evidence comes from a multicenter case-control study where subjects from 10 European countries were evaluated for relationship between antioxidant status and acute myocardial infarctions. After adjusting for a range of dietary variables, only lycopene levels but not beta-carotene were found to be protective. At present, the role of lycopene in the prevention of CHD is strongly suggestive. Although the antioxidant property of lycopene may be one of the principal mechanism for its effect, other mechanisms may also be responsible. Controlled clinical and dietary intervention studies using well-defined subject populations and disease end points must be undertaken in the future to provide definitive evidence for the role of lycopene in the prevention of CHD. Mechanistic studies must also be initiated to understand the mode of lycopene action.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / administration & dosage
  • Antioxidants / metabolism*
  • Carotenoids / administration & dosage*
  • Carotenoids / metabolism*
  • Coronary Disease / prevention & control*
  • Diet*
  • Humans
  • Lipoproteins, LDL / blood
  • Lycopene
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Risk Factors
  • Solanum lycopersicum*


  • Antioxidants
  • Lipoproteins, LDL
  • oxidized low density lipoprotein
  • Carotenoids
  • Lycopene