Nothing beats a sun-ripened tomato picked at the height of the season. It’s basically the taste of summer. Yet there may be more reason to eat a tomato than deliciousness alone. Daily tomato consumption may reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that male mice that consumed a daily diet including 10 percent tomato powder for 35 weeks and were subsequently exposed to ultraviolet light developed an average of 50 percent fewer skin cancer tumors compared to mice that did not consume any dehydrated tomato.
One theory as to why: Potentially bioactive pigmenting compounds – lycopene, which gives tomatoes their color, or possibly glycoalkaloids, for example — may protect the skin from being damaged by UV light, according to study co-author Jessica Cooperstone, an assistant professor in the departments of Horticulture & Crop Sciences and Food Science & Technology at Ohio State.
Results were similar for both tomato varieties tested — red and tangerine tomatoes (named for their color, not for any relation to the citrus) – but not for male and female mice. Interestingly, the researchers found, female mice fed a tomato diet did not show any significant difference in tumor growth, compared to female mice who did not eat tomatoes. Male mice have previously been shown to be more prone to tumor growth following UV exposure than female mice — and human males are more likely than women to develop skin cancer as well.
“Men get skin cancers at two to three times higher rates than women, even when you control for unproductive UV exposure,” Cooperstone tells Healthy Eats. “The reason for this is really still not known.”
As for whether the link between tomato consumption and skin-cancer reduction may hold true for humans, as well as mice, she says, the data, at minimum, should spur further investigation.
As part of a balanced and healthy diet, this study, along with others indicates that eating tomatoes may be beneficial. But, Cooperstone warns, don’t throw away your sunscreen – using it regularly is still the most effective way to reduce your risk for skin cancer.
“There is some data in the literature that suggests continued tomato consumption can provide an SPF of about 2, so certainly not a sunscreen replacer,” she says.
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.