'Tomato pill' hope for stopping heart disease
Taking a tomato pill a day could help keep heart disease at bay, say UK scientists who have carried out a small but robust study.
The trial, which tested the tomato pill versus a dummy drug in 72 adults, found it improved the functioning of blood vessels.
But experts say more studies are needed to prove it really works.
The pill contains lycopene, a natural antioxidant that also gives tomatoes their colour.
Experts have suspected for some time that lycopene might be good for avoiding illnesses, including certain cancers and cardiovascular disease.
There is some evidence that eating a Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in tomatoes (as well as other fruit and vegetables and olive oil), is beneficial for health.
Following a healthy diet is still advisable but many different scientific teams have been researching whether there is a way to put at least some of this good stuff into an easy-to-take pill. Some have started testing theirs out.
A team at Cambridge University set out to see if a "tomato pill" would have the desired effect.
The pill was made by a company called CamNutra, but the scientists were working independently of CamNutra, and instead were funded by the Wellcome Trust, the British Heart Foundation and the National Institute of Health Research for their study.
They recruited 36 volunteers known to have heart disease and 36 "healthy" controls, who were all given a daily tablet to take, which was either the tomato pill or a placebo. To ensure a fairer trial, neither the volunteers nor the researchers were told what the tablets actually contained until after the two-month study had ended and the results were in.
For comparison, the researchers measured something called forearm blood flow, which is predictive of future cardiovascular risk because narrowed blood vessels can lead to heart attack and stroke.
In the heart disease patients, the tomato pill improved forearm blood flow significantly, while the placebo did not.
The supplement had no effect on blood pressure, arterial stiffness or levels of fats in the blood, however.
- A natural antioxidant - substances thought to protect the body's cells from damage
- Found in tomatoes, but also in apricots, watermelon and papaya as well as pink grapefruit
- Lycopene content varies according to the variety of tomato and how it is prepared eg. puree, ketchup, cooked or raw
- It is unclear whether supplements would ever be able to replace the benefits of a varied diet
Lead researcher Dr Joseph Cheriyan said the findings, published in PLoS One journal, were promising, but added: "A daily 'tomato pill' is not a substitute for other treatments, but may provide added benefits when taken alongside other medication.
"However, we cannot answer if this may reduce heart disease - this would need much larger trials to investigate outcomes more carefully."
Prof Jeremy Pearson of the British Heart Foundation said big studies were needed to see if this could become a viable option for patients.