According to scientists from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the berries from autumn olive, a shrub, could become an alternative source of lycopene.
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 colours tomatoes red.
ARS nutritionist Beverly Clevidence analysed 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.
According to Clevidence, who heads ARS' Phytonutrients Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, lycopene has generated widespread interest as a possible deterrent to heart disease and cancers of the prostate, cervix and gastrointestinal tract.
80-90 per cent of the US intake of this 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 in order 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 naturalised plants for analysis in Clevidence's laboratory.
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 54mg per 100g, compared to an average 3mg/100g for fresh tomatoes, 10mg/100g for canned tomatoes, and 30mg/100g for tomato paste.
An article on autumn olive appears in the September online issue of Agricultural Research magazine .