Public Awareness of Lycopene, Functional Foods on the Rise

Six months ago, when H.J. Heinz Company (Pittsburgh) launched its consumer awareness campaign about lycopene, only 6.5% of consumers surveyed had ever heard of it. By April 1999, that number had nearly doubled, according to a recent independent survey commissioned by Heinz. The jump mirrors similar gains in consumers' understanding of functional foods which increased from 9.3% in December 1998 to 15.6% currently.

Antioxidants, like lycopene, protect human cells from free radicals—highly reactive oxidized molecules that disrupt the body's cell membranes and attack the genetic material within. The degenerative oxidative stress of free radicals is suspected to be a factor in heart disease, cancer and aging. The survey indicates consumer awareness that lycopene is found in tomatoes has jumped from 7.2% in December to 22.3% in April—more than triple in only six months.

Heinz attributes this jump in awareness to the steady flow of media coverage following a combination of events. First, in November 1998, Lipids magazine published a study by Venket Rao, PhD, a professor from the University of Toronto's Department of Nutritional Science and a Faculty of Medicine member. Rao's study concluded that regular consumption of a variety of processed tomato products significantly raises the blood levels of lycopene in the human body. In January, Heinz, in partnership with the Cancer Research Foundation of America (CRFA), launched a consumer awareness program stating that lycopene may help reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer. During this period, announcements of new lycopene research campaigns also blossomed.

In addition to indicating a higher awareness of lycopene, the survey indicated the number of consumers who responded that they were eating tomato products every day increased from 17.5% in December 1998 to 20.9% in April 1999. Consumers eating tomato products two to five times weekly remained steady at about 50%. Consumers indicating a tomato intake of only once per week dipped slightly from 17.8% to 16.5%, and people who eat tomato products only occasionally shrank from 8.1% to 5.6%. Heinz interprets this as indicating that consumers are making an effort to increase their tomato intake, rather than decrease it.

Heinz and the Cancer Research Foundation of America will co-author a consumer information booklet about lycopene and functional foods later this year.