A daily dose of an extract found in tomatoes could help improve blood vessel function in patients struggling with cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease is much less prevalent in Europe where a Mediterranean diet is maintained. The diet consists of high quantities of fruits and vegetables as well as olive oil, a University of Cambridge news release reported.

The diet is rich in lycopene, which is an antioxidant found in tomatoes and some other fruits. The potency of this extract is believed to be enhanced when tomatoes are turned into a puree such as ketchup or are exposed to olive oil.

"There's a wealth of research that suggests that the Mediterranean diet - which includes lycopene found in tomatoes and other fruit as a component - is good for our cardiovascular health. But so far, it's been a mystery what the underlying mechanisms could be," Doctor Joseph Cheriyan, consultant clinical pharmacologist & physician at Addenbrooke's Hospital and Associate Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, said in the news release.

A research team looked at thirty-six cardiovascular patients and thirty-six healthy volunteers to make their findings. The patients were given either Ateronon (which contain seven milligrams of lycopene) or a placebo pill.

The patients with cardiovascular disease were all on statins, which lower cholesterol, but still had poorer function of the inner blood vessels than the healthy patients.

The team found the lycopene supplement normalized endothelial (inner blood vessel) function in the patients, but not the healthy volunteers.

The "tomato pill" improved the response of the blood vessels to blood acetylcholine ("which stimulates the release of an important hormone called nitric oxide which is a blood vessel dilator") by 53 percent when compared with the placebo group, the news release reported.

"We've shown quite clearly that lycopene improves the function of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease patients," Doctor Cheriyan said in the news release. "It reinforces the need for a healthy diet in people at risk from heart disease and stroke. A daily 'tomato pill' is not a substitute for other treatments, but may provide added benefits when taken alongside other medication. However, we cannot answer if this may reduce heart disease - this would need much larger trials to investigate outcomes more carefully."