Schematic of Chemical composition of Lycopene
Stated simply, Lycopene is the compound that puts the red in tomatoes. But far more than its chromatic traits, Lycopene has been recognized for its salubrious qualities. Scientists, in fact, have discovered that it is one of the most healthfully beneficial natural compounds we can ingest.
Lycopene is what scientists classify as a phytonutrient (also referred to as a phytochemical). Essentially, a phytonutrient is a plant-borne compound that, while not necessary for normal metabolic function, enhances the overall health of an organism. Note that phytonutrients differ from nutrients in that nutrients are necessary to maintain normal, healthy metabolic activity, and phytonutrients simply add to this health. Please refer to the Health Benefits of Lycopene section for more information on how Lycopene enhances healthfulness.
Chemically, Lycopene is a carotenoid pigment (There are a total of about 600 carotenoids to date that have been discovered in nature). A carotenoid is a natural organic (in chemistry, a substance is considered 'organic' if it contains carbon) pigment characterized by possessing a large number of carbon atoms (35 to 40) and having a molecular structure that includes conjugated double carbon-carbon bonds known as chromophores. Carotenoids may have colors ranging from pale yellow to dark red, depending on the number of chromophores-the more chromophores, the darker the pigment, due to the physical interaction of visible light and the compound's molecular structure (the higher density of Lycopene, due to having a large number of chromophores, absorbs longer wavelength light). Basically, the more chromophores, the greater percentage of the visible light spectrum (between 4,000 and 7,000 angstroms). Because Lycopene has so many chromophores, it absorbs almost all but the very longest (around 7,000 angstroms, which we perceive as red) wavelengths of visible light.
Other Carotenoids include both Alpha and Beta Carotenes, coloring Carrots orange. Note, because the Carotenes don't have as many chromophores as Lycopene, they do not absorb as much light, therefore they are lighter in color. Also note that while Beta Carotene has a closed ring structure, Lycopene has an open ring structure.
On a molecular level, Lycopene is a terpene built of 8 isoprene units. Its chemical formula is C40 H56
Click above image of a Lycopene molecule to interact with its three dimensional structure, courtesy of 3DChem Note: You can use your cursor to click and 'drag' the image of the molecule through three axes.Lycopene derives its name from the taxonomical species designation for tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum.
While Lycopene is found in papaya, watermelon, and pink grapefruit, the vast majority of North American human ingested lycopene derives from tomatoes and processed tomato products.1. Morning Star's Lycopene Information Welcome Page