Eating tomatoes in your daily salad or regularly enjoying a healthy red sauce on your spaghetti could help reduce your risk of stroke, according to research published this week in the journal Neurology.
Tomatoes contain a powerful antioxidant that is good for brain health, the researchers say, and cooked tomatoes seem to offer more protection than raw.
"This study adds to the evidence that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of stroke," says study author Jouni Karppi, of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio. "A diet containing tomatoes... a few times a week would be good for our health. However, daily intake of tomatoes may give better protection."
Karppi says it's the chemical lycopene that gives tomatoes and other fruits/vegetables their rich red color, that is helping to protect the brain. Tomatoes are particularly high in the powerful antioxidant that acts like a sponge, soaking up rogue molecules called free radicals that if left unchecked can damage cells.
Researchers tested the level of lycopene in the blood of more than 1,000 Finnish men aged 46 to 65, starting in 1991. Scientists then followed the men on average for more than a decade to record the number who had strokes.
The scientists found that those with the highest levels of lycopene were 55% less likely to have a stroke than those with the lowest amounts in their blood.
Though the study looks promising, experts say that we can't necessarily give all of the credit to lycopene.
"It's a compelling study and it fits with other data that we have about risk of stroke and vegetable and fruit consumption," explains Dr. Daniel Labovitz, director of the Stern Stroke Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "But it's not proof that if you eat tomatoes you're going to have less risk of stroke."
Labovitz also points out that the group of men who had fewer strokes were younger, had lower blood pressure and smoked less than the group more prone to stroke. Though the researchers tried to take these lifestyle factors into account when calculating their findings, it may be that these things influenced the outcomes.
In other words, perhaps better health habits - not necessarily just the lycopene - lead to fewer strokes.
More on lycopene
Lycopene has attracted a lot of attention in recent years because it's such a powerful antioxidant. If we don't eat enough lycopene-packed foods, experts suspect too many free radicals get left in the body, damaging blood vessels by helping to form fatty deposits. When these deposits build up, a blockage forms. If that vessel is in the brain, the blockage can cause a stroke.
But the foods we eat are complex and filled with many nutrients, making it tough to prove what is really providing benefits.
"Eating tomatoes is a good thing, but we don't know if there is really anything unique about tomatoes apart from other fruits and vegetables that reduce stroke risk," explains Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts.
Tomatoes could contribute to reducing stroke in other ways, Willett says, because they are a good source of potassium, which is known to reduce blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure is major risk factor for stroke.
Take home message
So are lycopene packed tomatoes really the magic fruit? It seems the jury is still out, but researchers suggest we eat healthy as they continue to search for answers.
"This is one more reason to consume fruits and vegetables - at least 5 a day - and it's good to include tomatoes in that mix," Willett said.