Despite the bad rep that pizza seems to have nowadays because of its relatively high caloric content (with macros consisting of relatively high saturated fat and carb content) that may be contributing to the obesity problem in America because of its popularity, there actually might be a benefit in eating this delicious delicacy. Pizza may actually help prevent certain types of cancer! So what is in pizza that has this cancer-fighting property?
The answer lies within the pizza’s tomato paste. The tomato paste contains a compound known as lycopene, a certain type of carotenoid with antioxidant properties (carotenoids are the organic pigments that give fruits and vegetables their colors). Lycopene may play a role in cancer prevention. A few observational studies, although not definitive, have linked increased blood levels of lycopene with lower risks of certain types of cancer, in particular prostate cancer. Studies have also shown that lycopene appear to have a protective effect against lung and stomach cancers as well. However, these results are far from complete; other research did not show a significant difference in blood levels of lycopene between those who did and did not develop prostate cancer, for example. Additionally, some research suggest that it might be a synergistic effect of multiple compounds in tomatoes that may attribute to cancer prevention, rather than lycopene alone.
The first clinical trials with lycopene were performed recently by Dr. Omer Kucuk, a medical oncologist of Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Specializing in nutrition and cancer therapy, Dr. Kucuk observed positive outcomes with lycopene and soy isoflavones in treatment of patients with either hormone-naïve or hormone-refractory prostate cancer.
For the matter of pharmacokinetics (the study of drug absorption into the body for use, its metabolism, and its clearance): what is the optimal way to get lycopene into your bloodstream (besides direct injection)? First of all, lycopene can be found in greater concentration by weight in paste or sauce form compared to a raw tomato. Thus, there is a higher likelihood of lycopene being absorbed into your bloodstream than just passing in and out of your GI tract. Research has shown that the lycopene in tomato paste or sauce is more readily absorbed into the bloodstream versus lycopene in raw tomatoes. Because lycopene is fat-soluble, fats can be ingested along with the lycopene in tomatoes to enhance its bioavailability (the fraction of the ingested drug that actually reaches the systemic circulation, or bloodstream). That’s where the pizza comes in handy: the cheese on the pizza (as well as the greasy oil) is a source of fat that helps promote lycopene absorption by the intestines!
Now, don’t start binge-eating ridiculous amounts of pizza as an excuse for attaining the possible benefits of lycopene. Lycopene research is still in its relatively adolescent stages, and its full benefits are, for now, uncertain. More research must be done to definitively confirm its efficacy in both cancer prevention and cancer treatment. Remember, moderation is key.
If you are interested in the scientific studies, check out the citations listed in the below sites:
American Cancer Society:
Bio on Dr. Omer Kucuk:
General background info on lycopene: