Researchers at Cambridge University found that absorption of lycopene – the red substance in tomatoes – is dramatically boosted by combining it with milk protein.
They believe the effects of taking such a combination – akin to those of eating a healthy Mediterranean diet – in a pill could help reduce furring of the arteries which occurs in heart disease.
Lycopene is known to prevent atherosclerosis but is poorly absorbed in its natural form.
It works by blocking compounds that trigger the breakdown of fats in the blood to form particles. These stick to the walls of arteries, narrowing the channel for the passage of blood and leading to heart attacks and strokes.
In earlier trials the formula, called LactoLycopene, improved blood flow by 53 per cent in patients with heart disease.
Joseph Cheriyan, director of the cardiovascular clinical trials office at Cambridge University, said the pills are not a substitute for a healthy diet but may give “added benefits” to conventional heart disease treatment.
Heart disease remains the UK’s biggest killer, affecting 2.3 million Britons and causing 69,000 heart attacks and 160,000 deaths each year.
Last night, research bodies stressed the importance of a healthy diet. Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “We know eating a Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, fish and wholegrains is beneficial for our cardiovascular health. But it’s the diet as a whole that’s important.
“The different combinations of foods, and how they are prepared, affect how the nutrients within them are digested and absorbed.
“We don’t recommend any supplements that have not been prescribed by a health professional but look forward to seeing what further research into lycopene brings.”
The BHF spokesman added: “[Exercise] can also help you control your weight, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and improve your mental health – helping you to look and feel great.”
Lawyer Nick Sutcliffe, who steered the patenting process, said LactoLycopene was one of the first natural compounds to show potential beneficial properties in the treatment of heart disease.
“There is increasing interest in natural ingredients,” he said.
“People are looking for cures and if they can find them in plants that is very much easier than developing synthetic drugs.”
LactoLycopene will be marketed by Cambridge Nutraceuticals as a pill called Ateronon Heart in the new year.