"The European food industry could strengthen its position since the demand for healthy tomato products will rise, and the development of such is one of the sub-goals of this project," said project coordinator Volker Böhm from the Institute of Nutrition at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.
Tomatoes are a valuable source of nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and the lycopene, a potent antioxidant that gives the fruit its characteristic red colour.
Recent studies have linked tomatoes and their extracts to reducing the risk of several diseases, such as prostate cancer, and lowering inflammation that may cause hypertension and heart disease.
The project, Lycocard - 'lyco' from lycopene, and 'card' from cardiovascular disease - is sponsored by the European Union and involves 15 academic institutions, industrial partners and patient organisations in six different countries.
It is well known that lycopene is more bioavailable when the tomatoes are processed and/or cooked, but optimal conditions for lycopene bioavailability are not established.
The Lycocard project aims to clarify the various unknowns including the effect of technological processes on the lycopene content, how the various food ingredients interact, the molecular aspects of lycopene absorption and metabolism, how the lycopene isomers and lycopene metabolites act in different biological systems, and the bioavailability of lycopene within the human body.
By investigating these issues and promoting the results, the researchers aim to boost public awareness of tomatoes and lycopene.
"We all know that we should be eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day but what we're now saying is that one of these should be processed tomatoes rather than raw ones in salads," said Dr. Gordon Lowe from Liverpool John Moores University - the only UK-based institution involved in the project.
"This research is about educating the public and giving them useful information on how to create healthy, realistic meal plans," he said.
Boosting public awareness will boost public demand for the fruit, particularly from Europe's tomato producers.
"The project is quite political," Dr. Lowe told NutraIngredients.com. "Europe's tomato industry is under pressure from the US and China, and this project hopes to impress on the public the importance of lycopene."
British supermarket giant Tesco recently launched a British-grown tomato that offers double the lycopene content of normal tomatoes, and public interest is already on the rise, says the supermarket, with demand for tomatoes reported to have soared by 10 per cent in the last year.