Epidemiological evidence indicates that high consumption of tomatoes and tomato-based products reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as CVD and cancer. Such potential benefits are often ascribed to high concentrations of lycopene present in tomato products. Mainly from the results of in vitro studies, potential biological mechanisms by which carotenoids could protect against heart disease and cancer have been suggested. These include cholesterol reduction, inhibition of oxidation processes, modulation of inflammatory markers, enhanced intercellular communication, inhibition of tumourigenesis and induction of apoptosis, metabolism to retinoids and antiangiogenic effects. However, with regard to CVD, results from intervention studies gave mixed results. Over fifty human intervention trials with lycopene supplements or tomato-based products have been conducted to date, the majority being underpowered. Many showed some beneficial effects but mostly on non-established cardiovascular risk markers such as lipid peroxidation, DNA oxidative damage, platelet activation and inflammatory markers. Only a few studies showed improvement in lipid profiles, C reactive protein and blood pressure. However, recent findings indicate that lycopene could exert cardiovascular protection by lowering HDL-associated inflammation, as well as by modulating HDL functionality towards an antiatherogenic phenotype. Furthermore, in vitro studies indicate that lycopene could modulate T lymphocyte activity, which would also inhibit atherogenic processes and confer cardiovascular protection. These findings also suggest that HDL functionality deserves further consideration as a potential early marker for CVD risk, modifiable by dietary factors such as lycopene.
Keywords: CRP C-reactive protein; Cardiovascular health; Intervention trials; Lycopene; Mechanisms.