Men who love eating tomatoes may have lower odds of suffering a stroke, according to a Finnish study.
Researchers whose results appeared in the journal Neurology found that of the more than 1,000 older men they followed, those with relatively high blood levels of the antioxidant lycopene were less likely to have a stroke over a dozen years.
Lycopene is a chemical that gives a reddish hue to foods like tomatoes, red peppers, watermelon and papaya. For most people, tomatoes and tomato products are by far the biggest source of lycopene in the diet.
Lycopene is a "potent antioxidant," said lead researcher Jouni Karppi, a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, which means it helps protect body cells from damage that can ultimately lead to disease.
Laboratory research also suggests that lycopene helps fight inflammation and blood clots, and may be better at it than other antioxidants.
But other researchers said the study does not prove that tomatoes alone can cut anyone's stroke risk, noting that there may be other things about men with high lycopene levels that could explain the lower chances of having a stroke.
The study looked at 1,031 men aged 46 to 55 who had their blood levels of lycopene, alpha- and beta-carotene, and vitamins E and A measured.
Over the next 12 years, there were 11 strokes among the one-quarter of men with the highest lycopene levels, compared to 25 among the one-quarter with the lowest levels.
The researchers also accounted for some major factors that affect stroke risk, like smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes - and the high-lycopene group still had a 55 per cent lower risk of suffering a stroke.
"Studies like this are interesting, but they have significant limitations," said Larry Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center and a professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.
The current study lacked information on the men's overall diet habits, for example, that might explain why lycopene was linked to the lower risk. But Karppi said the findings support the current advice to get plenty of fruits and vegetables.
"These findings do reinforce the current recommendations for people to get a well-balanced diet, with fruits and vegetables,"Goldstein agreed.
He said the best example of a diet that might cut stroke risk is the "DASH" diet that has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It advocates cutting salt and getting more fiber-rich grains, nuts and legumes, and low-fat dairy, as well as four to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
"If you want to eat tomatoes as part of that, that's fine,"Goldstein added.