Everyone who enjoys Italian food knows that tomato sauce stains. The stain produced by tomatoes arises from the unique blend of carotenoid molecules produced by the tomato itself. While most tomatoes produce more beta-carotene (bright orange) than any other molecule, some tomatoes have been selected and grown for their propensity to produce more lycopene (reddish orange) than any other molecule. Lycopene-rich tomatoes are found in India and Israel … not Italy!
Lycopene is easily extracted from tomatoes using a combination of alkali saponification and solvent extraction. Tomatoes are harvested, diced, and submerged in oil, where lycopene is naturally oil soluble. A strong alkali is added to saponify the lycopene and render it water dispersible. Ethyl acetate is typically used to isolate and concentrate the water dispersible lycopene. Ethyl acetate is washed away, to be reused later, leaving behind a pure extract of lycopene plus the other carotenoids inside the tomato. As a result of the tomato’s unique blend of carotenoids, some lycopene extracts are more orange, while others are more red. The redder the lycopene extract, the more valuable it is to the food industry.
In both the US and the EU, lycopene may be used in foods generally. Lycopene may be found in soups, sauces, and dressings. Like all carotenoids, it is generally unstable in very low pH (highly acidic) beverages. It can be found in more soft candies than hard candies, because the high heat of hard candy manufacture tends to degrade lycopene color value. Lycopene is somewhat limited in bakery applications (cake and cookie decorating, for example), because it develops an orange-red color, not the “pink” color or “ruby red” color desired by many bakers.