Behind the headlines

Can tomatoes prevent heart attacks?

Tomatoes squashed on newspaper

"'Tomato pill' hope for stopping heart disease."

- BBC News, 10 June 2014

The BHF’s view

This story gained widespread coverage, including in the Telegraph, Guardian, Express and Mail. The headlines included claims such as “‘Tomato pill’ could prevent heart attacks”; “Ketchup with everything: tomato sauce helps fight heart disease”; and “£1-a-day tomato pill that helps your heart”, all of which are slightly inaccurate. The pill does contain a substance that is found in tomatoes, but it is not really a ‘tomato pill’. And the studies certainly did not look at ketchup, which should be eaten in moderation, as it is high in sugar and salt.

Incidence of cardiovascular disease is lower in countries where people typically eat a Mediterranean-style diet based on lots of vegetables, fruit, beans and cereal products. This research investigated the theory that lycopene, an antioxidant that gives tomatoes their red colour, could be partly responsible for this diet’s benefits.

The researchers found that when people with cardiovascular disease who took statins were also given a chemical to widen their blood vessels, their blood vessels widened to a greater extent if they had been taking a lycopene pill every day for two months rather than a placebo.

Further work is needed to understand whether the beneficial effects seen in this small study translate into clinical benefit for at-risk patients

There was no difference in the healthy volunteers. Previous evidence has shown that the function of cells lining the blood vessels (endothelial cells) is impaired in patients with cardiovascular disease. In theory, improving endothelial function might reduce the risk of developing heart disease. The study, carried out by Cambridge researchers, was relatively short, following participants for two months.

It was also quite small, involving just 36 people with cardiovascular disease and 36 healthy volunteers. It was intended as an initial ‘proof of concept’ study to suggest whether further research should be done. For this reason, it is not enough on its own to determine whether lycopene is able to cut the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The study authors say that further studies are needed to see if lycopene supplements could affect cardiovascular outcomes. Many studies have shown the heart health benefits of a diet high in fruit and vegetables, whether you have cardiovascular disease or not.

The authors only suggest that lycopene may be partly responsible for the lower rate of cardiovascular disease in the Mediterranean. They note that lycopene pills would not be a sufficient substitute for the complex mixture of nutrients in a healthy diet. Professor Jeremy Pearson, our Associate Medical Director, said: “Impaired endothelial function is a known predictor of increased risk of future heart disease. Further work is needed to understand whether the beneficial effects seen in this small study translate into clinical benefit for at-risk patients.”

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