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Tiny Berry Tops Tomatoes in Lycopene

By Judy McBride
September 13, 2001

Tiny, red berries from an obscure shrub pack more lycopene than tomatoes. The berries from autumn olive could become an alternative source of this important nutrient, if two Agricultural Research Service scientists have their way.

ARS horticulturist Ingrid Fordham learned that the brilliant-red berries were edible and turned them into delectable jams. She noticed that the red pigment settled to the bottom of her juicer and wondered if it might be one of the carotenoids, especially lycopene, the pigment that colors tomatoes red. ARS nutritionist Beverly Clevidence offered to analyze the berries.

The analysis showed that, ounce for ounce, the typical autumn olive berry is up to 17 times higher in lycopene than the typical raw tomato.

Lycopene has generated widespread interest as a possible deterrent to heart disease and cancers of the prostate, cervix and gastrointestinal tract, according to Clevidence, who heads ARS’ Phytonutrients Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. Eighty to 90 percent of the U.S. intake of this health-enhancing nutrient comes from tomatoes and tomato products.

Autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, is a multistem shrub covered with silvery green leaves and a profusion of red berries in late September and October, according to Fordham, who is with ARS’ Fruit Laboratory in Beltsville. It has become a popular erosion-control shrub along highways because it thrives in poor soil.

A few nurseries sell cultivated varieties of autumn olive as a food source to attract wildlife. But there are few reports of people eating the sweet-tart, pea-size berries. Fordham collected berries from five cultivated varieties and six naturalized plants for analysis in Clevidence’s lab.

The berries contained the same carotenoids as tomato--lycopene, beta carotene and lutein. The big difference was in the lycopene levels. They ranged from 15 to 54 milligrams per 100 grams, compared to an average 3 mg/100 g for fresh tomatoes, 10 mg/100 g for canned tomatoes, and 30 mg/100 g for tomato paste.

An article on autumn olive appears in the September issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.