Watermelon, a major source of antioxidants, may help fight cancer, according to new US government research. Tomatoes, most commonly recognized as a major source of lycopene, the phytochemical (natural plant substance) that could help prevent certain cancers and other health problems, now has to share the spotlight with a sweeter rival that may be just as good a source -- watermelon.
According to a recent report from MSNBC, tomatoes, watermelon, guava, and red and pink grapefruit get their characteristic color from lycopene. But, adding color is just a nice side effect of a phytochemical that appears to be a powerful antioxidant that protects our cells from damage created by highly unstable molecules.
Lycopene was given the credit in a Harvard University study indicating that men who ate more tomato products reduced their risk for prostate cancer by 25%. Additionally, other studies supported the Harvard finding that consuming more foods high in lycopene decreased the risk of prostate and other cancers.
While the amount of lycopene in a watermelon fluctuated based on variety and growing conditions, a report in Agricultural Research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) indicated that watermelon contains more lycopene than tomatoes. However, because processed tomato products such as sauce and juice contain a large concentration of tomatoes in one portion, their standard servings contain more lycopene than the average one-cup serving of watermelon.
MSNBC reported that past research with lycopene from tomatoes has shown that this phytochemical is not absorbed equally well from all foods that contain it. Studies show that the lycopene in tomato products that have been heat-processed (like tomato juice and sauce) is better absorbed than that in raw tomatoes. Yet in comparisons made after three weeks of consuming equal amounts of lycopene from heat-processed tomato juice and unprocessed watermelon juice, ARS research found similar blood levels of the antioxidant.
Researchers intend to follow the study with another targeted at determining if lycopene from watermelons are like tomatoes in that it is best absorbed when eaten with a meal containing fat. Dieticians would point out that even without the lycopene benefit watermelon is an excellent part of a balanced diet and offers 14 milligrams of vitamin C per cup.
Additionally, dieters can appreciate that watermelon, one of the fruits least concentrated in sugar and calories, can satisfy a craving for sweets, costing the dieter a measly 49 calories. While the benefits if watermelon are great, a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables could reduce the risk of cancer by 20%, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
Moreover, AICR states that limiting saturated fat and alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and staying physically active, reduces cancer incidence by 30 to 40 percent.
Source: Harvard University; AICR; MSNBC; Reuters