If the results of the study, published in the journal Nutrition, can be repeated in humans, they will add to a significant body of research supporting the potential heart health benefits of lycopene, predominantly associated with benefits for prostate health. Lycopene is an antioxidant that is present in red- and pink-coloured fruits and vegetables. As well as being used as a food colouring, it is also used in supplements. The role of lycopene in heart health and in reducing the risk of certain cancers is supported by a body of research. Min-Yu Hu and co-workers from the Central South University in Changsha, China divided 40 male adult rabbits into five equal groups to consume a standard diet, a high-fat diet, a high-fat diet plus 4 or 12mg per kg of lycopene, or the high-fat diet plus 10mg per kg of fluvastatin. The animals consumed the diets for eight weeks. The researchers used a relatively high dose of lycopene (4 and 12 mg/kg of body weight) because rabbits reportedly do not absorb the nutrient efficiently. These doses produced blood levels of the carotenoid of 0.19 and 0.24 moles per litre, respectively. "This corresponds to low plasma levels of lycopene in humans who may achieve five-fold higher levels already with the intake of only 0.3 mg/kg of body weight," explained the authors. At the end of the study, the animals fed only the high-fat diet had higher levels of total and LDL cholesterol, triacylglycerols, oxidised low-density lipoprotein, malonaldehyde, and interleukin-1 than animals fed the standard diet. However, animals fed the high-fat diet and supplemented with lycopene or fluvastatin had improved levels of these biomarkers, and the lycopene of both doses was better than the statin. "The results of our experiment in the high-fat diet rabbit model showed that lycopene and fluvastatin lowered serum levels of total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol, improved lipid metabolism, and reduced the amount of triacylglycerols," wrote the authors. "Lycopene intervention reduced the increase in ox-LDL levels in rabbits on the high-fat diet, whereas fluvastatin did not show such an effect. The cause of this difference is at present not known, although the result speaks in favour of lycopene," they added. "These findings provide a theoretical rationale for the use of lycopene as a preventive in atherosclerosis," they concluded. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), which causes almost 50 per cent of deaths in Europe, and is reported to cost the EU economy about €169bn ($202bn) per year. Source: Nutrition Published online ahead of print, 30 June 2008, doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2008.05.006 "Comparison of lycopene and fluvastatin effects on atherosclerosis induced by a high-fat diet in rabbits" Authors: M.-Y. Hu, Y.-L. Li, C.-H. Jiang, Z.-Q. Liu, S.-L. Qu, Y.-M. Huang
Supplements of the lycopene, the carotenoid that give tomatoes their red colour, may be as effective as statins to reduce the formation of plaques in the arteries that cause atherosclerosis, says a new study with rabbits.