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Move Over, Tomatoes

Autumn olive berries pack more of antioxidant called lycopene

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 26, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Move over, tomatoes; you've got competition.

Folks who can't stand the taste of that fleshy, red fruit may soon be able to turn to a different berry for a critical nutrient typically found in tomatoes, new research shows.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have discovered that a tough, roadside shrub called the autumn olive produces berries in the fall that have large amounts of an antioxidant known as lycopene, which research has shown may deter heart disease and some cancers.

Better yet, the autumn olive berries have up to 17 times more lycopene than a raw tomato, the researchers add. Until now, tomatoes have accounted for 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans' consumption of this nutrient.

The findings will appear in the October issue of HortScience, the journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

"Not everyone likes tomatoes. This might be an alternative," says Beverly A. Clevidence, research leader at the ARS's Phytonutrients Laboratory. "It's not nailed down that lycopene is a magic bullet. Nonetheless, it looks promising."

Lycopene is a carotenoid, like beta carotene and lutein, and it gives tomatoes their red color. Lycopene is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit and guava. Some studies have shown that men who eat a lot of processed tomato products may lower their risk of prostate cancer. And recent evidence also suggests it may help prevent cervical cancer and gastrointestinal cancer. Scientists believe it works by damaging free radicals in our bodies, thereby protecting certain cell membranes.

The discovery about the fruits of the autumn olive was accidental, says the horticulturist who first decided to turn the berries into jam after talking with some people who had already eaten the fruit.

"When I tried to juice them, it made a beautiful juice, but there was a thick pigment layer on the bottom," says Ingrid M. Fordham, a horticulturalist with the ARS's Fruit Lab.

This made her wonder whether there were carotenoids in the berries, because they can't be dissolved in water and they are usually brightly colored. She decided to ask her colleagues at the Phytonutrients Laboratory to analyze the berries.

What the scientists found were large amounts of lycopene, 15 to 54 milligrams per 100 grams, compared to an average of 3 milligrams for fresh tomatoes, 10 milligrams for canned tomatoes and 30 milligrams for tomato paste. Tomatoes that are cooked in oil release the most lycopene, because the nutrient needs to attach to fat molecules to be absorbed in the body, Clevidence explains.

"We were kind of surprised," Clevidence adds. "We thought it was interesting, and that it might be useful."

One nutrition expert was intrigued by the findings, but adds she'd like to see more research.

"I think that the USDA is doing a marvelous job in trying to identify components in different kinds of plants that may provide health benefits," says Maureen Storey, director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy. But she adds she would like to see animal studies and more information on possible toxicity levels of the nutrient.

"A little of any kind of nutrient is good, whereas too much may be bad," she explains, adding that some nutrients have a wide range of acceptable consumption, but others don't.

Clevidence notes any toxicity problems that have cropped up in studies have been connected to the use of nutritional supplements -- particularly beta carotene. "We have not seen that from food," she explains.

Storey also points out lycopene is less well known than its sister carotenoids, such as beta carotene. "We're just beginning to find out about lycopene," she says.

Fordham and Clevidence agree more studies need to be done.

"We need to do more research with human studies to see how humans absorb it," Fordham says, though she adds the ARS hasn't come up with money for such studies yet.

Clevidence thinks that once more studies are done, a juice manufacturer might be able to blend autumn olive berries with something sweet like apple juice to come up with a more nutritious product. Beyond that, the possibilities are endless, she adds.

"I think this is an evolving thing. Maybe someday it will be on the shelf next to the Welch's grape jelly," she says.

What To Do

If you want more details about autumn olive berries, take a peek here. And you can even make wine from the berry.

Read more about the work at the Phytonutrients Lab.

And find out more about the autumn olive bush, which is often used to control erosion along highways because it thrives in poor soil. You can also go here for a picture of the autumn olive.

Want to grow your own? The West Virginia University Extension service tells you how. And, yes, tomatoes are fruit.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ingrid M. Fordham, horticulturalist, ARS's Fruit Lab, Beltsville, Md.; Beverly A. Clevidence, research leader, ARS's Phytonutrients Laboratory, Beltsville, Md.; Maureen Storey, director, Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, Washington, D.C.; October 2001 HortScience
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