If You Want the Health Benefits of Tomatoes, Keep Your Meatballs Away From the Spaghetti

Iron-rich foods take a bite out of lycopene levels in tomato sauce. Olga Nayashkova/Shutterstock

So, what's the forecast for dinner? Spaghetti with a chance of meatballs?

Here's the thing:

As yummy as those meatballs — or lentil or what-have-you balls — are, they may actually steal the nutritional thunder of tomatoes.

According to a recently published study from Ohio State University, that's a particular problem when it comes to a tomato's famed cancer-fighting properties.

It all comes down to a compound found naturally in tomatoes called lycopene — the pigment that lends a tomato its scarlet flair. Red cabbage and the flesh of a watermelon are also chock-full of lycopene. Some foods, like asparagus, even get away with not being red and still contain it.

But let's face it, asparagus needs every advantage it can get to persuade us to eat it.

Tomatoes, not so much. We find every excuse to gorge on them — including mushing them into a savory marinara and plunking a few meatba-- err, not so fast.

Scientists, in their ongoing efforts to ruin dinner, say those meatballs are high in iron — and iron neutralizes the benefits of lycopene.

For their experiment, the Ohio State team gave a small group of medical students a tomato-based shake. Some of those shakes contained iron, while others did not.

The researchers then noted that students who combined the iron with the tomato drink had significantly less lycopene in their blood and digestive fluids.

"When people had iron with their meal, we saw almost a twofold drop in lycopene uptake over time," Rachel Kopec, the study's lead author and a professor at Ohio State, notes in a press release.

That's a lot less lycopene swirling around the body, protecting the heart and putting out fires on a cellular level. Of course, we need our iron. A body relies on it for everything from its energy stores to waste management. But it also has an unfortunate habit of stealing the spotlight and pushing other helpful compounds off the stage completely.

"We know that if you mix iron with certain compounds it will destroy them, but we didn't know if it would impair potentially beneficial carotenoids, like lycopene, found in fruits and vegetables," Kopec adds.

tomato sauce pot
Cooking tomatoes boosts the amount of the antioxidant lycopene. Kiian Oksana/Shutterstock

So how does that affect dinner?

"This could have potential implications every time a person is consuming something rich in lycopene and iron — say a Bolognese sauce, or an iron-fortified cereal with a side of tomato juice. You're probably only getting half as much lycopene from this as you would without the iron."

Let's be real. No one is going to miss that glass of tomato juice to go along with their "iron-rich cereal."

But spaghetti and meatballs? They're the cookies to a sauce's cream. The chill to its Netflix. The Cheech to its Chong. (You get the idea.)

Fortunately, there are other ways to get your cancer-fighting food fix.

Broccoli, for example, is a genius when it comes to stamping out free radicals — those dangerous atoms that undermine healthy cells and open the door for all sorts of disease.

And don't even get us started on the benefits of blueberries, including their knack for taming tumors.

So dinner isn't ruined. Enjoy your spaghetti and meatballs. But, like a carbon offset for frequent fliers, just make sure you leave room for dessert. And make that dessert blueberries.