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From the field to the fork: how processed tomatoes could help in the battle against heart disease

What do pizzas, spaghetti Bolognese and chilli con carne have in common? They all contain a vital ingredient that could help in the fight against cardiovascular disease – cooked tomatoes.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one the UK’s biggest killers, accounting for one in three deaths in the country every year. Now scientists from Liverpool John Moores University’s Nutraceutical Research Group (NRG) have been awarded over €420,000 by the European Union to investigate the health giving properties of cooked tomatoes.

The funding is part of a major EU-initiative, involving experts from 15 institutions in six different European countries.

LJMU is the only institution in the UK involved in the €5.2 million (Euros) research programme.

The potential health-giving properties of tomatoes relates to the lycopene they contain and its role as an antioxidant.

Dr Gordon Lowe, the biochemical scientist leading the LJMU research, explains: “Cholesterol is vital to a healthy body but a high level in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease. Cholesterol is transported around the human blood by special carriers called lipoproteins. There are several kinds of these, but low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are the most important.

“If you have too much LDL cholesterol in your blood, it can slowly build up in the walls of the arteries feeding your heart and brain. Together with other substances it can form a thick, hard deposit that can clog these arteries and this condition is known as atherosclerosis. We believe that lycopene could play a vital role in preventing atherosclerosis by stopping the lipoproteins from becoming oxidised. The oxidation of low-density lipoproteins can lead to ‘fatty steaks’ being deposited in the arteries.”

However, for the lycopene to become available to the human body, tomatoes must be cooked, preferably in some form of oil. That’s why as part of his research, Dr Lowe will be assessing different ways of cooking tomatoes to see which method maximises the lycopene availability.

Smoking is another major risk factor associated with heart disease and Dr Lowe will also be examining how smoking affects the body’s ability to harness the health-giving benefits of lycopene.

Dr Lowe continued: “Hardening of the arteries is a common condition affecting smokers and can lead to premature death. Liverpool has one of the country’s highest proportions of smoking-related deaths in people over 35. Obviously the best way to reduce your risk is to quit smoking or not start at all. But diet can also play a key role.

“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. This research is about educating the public and giving them useful information on how to create healthy, realistic meal plans.”

Shonagh Wilkie | alfa
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