Ohio State Researchers: Eating Tomatoes May Protect Against Skin Cancer

Photo: Thinkstock.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Could eating a tomato a day help keep skin cancer away — or at least lessen the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancers?

Researchers at The Ohio State University think the answer is maybe, based on promising results of a new study of how nutritional interventions can modulate the risk for skin cancers in mice.

The study, published in the July 11 edition of Scientific Reports, found that mice fed tomatoes daily over 35 weeks and exposed to ultraviolet light experienced a 50 percent decrease in developing skin cancer tumors compared to mice that didn’t consume tomatoes.

The theory is that dietary carotenoids, the pigmenting compounds that give tomatoes their color, may protect skin against UV light damage, said Jessica Cooperstone, co-author of the study and a research scientist in the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State.

Previous human clinical trials suggest that eating tomato paste over time can dampen sunburns, perhaps thanks to carotenoids from the plants that are deposited in the skin of humans after eating, and may be able to protect from UV light damage, Cooperstone said.

“Lycopene, the primary carotenoid in tomatoes, has been shown to be the most effective antioxidant of these pigments,” she said. “However, when comparing lycopene administered from a whole food (tomato) or a synthesized supplement, tomatoes appear more effective in preventing redness after UV exposure, suggesting other compounds in tomatoes, apart from lycopene, may also be bioactive.”

This is significant, considering that unprotected exposure to the sun is a major risk factor in the development of skin cancer, Cooperstone said.

In fact, non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common of all cancers, with more new cases — 5.4 million in 2012 — each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

Despite a low mortality rate, these cancers are costly, about $8.1 billion a year, are disfiguring, and their rates are increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“As a result, alternative methods for systemic protection, possibly via nutritional interventions to modulate risk for skin-related diseases, could provide a significant benefit,” Cooperstone said. “Foods are not drugs, but they can possibly over the lifetime of consumption alter the development of certain diseases.

“This preclinical research gets at that prevention aspect and rationalizes studying this issue further.”

The three-year study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health through the National Cancer Institute. The study was a collaborative project involving three other Ohio State researchers including Tatiana Oberyszyn, a professor and vice chair in the Department of Pathology in the College of Medicine; David Francis, professor and tomato geneticist in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, who developed the tomato varieties used in the study; and Steven Schwartz, a professor in Food Science and Technology

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Jessica Cooperstone