What Is Bioavailability and Why Is It Important?

Bioavailability is the word used to describe how an active food nutrient or a medicine gets into the body and starts to work. Some nutrients are only partially absorbed by the digestive system, and others are only absorbed if another helper food molecule is present.

Bioavailability, the easy with which the body can absorb compounds, has remained a conundrum for nutritional scientists looking at vitamins and nutrients, because trying to use tablets to replace vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables, has not translated into improved health.

In fact a massive analysis in 2011 reviewing 67 studies of vitamin supplement intake by 232,000 people, indicated the supplement users tended to die younger.

The reasons for this remain a mystery, but most food scientists believe it is the so-called secondary metabolites, (or small molecules) in plant-based foods, which produce the benefit in a healthy diet. There are the dozens of chemical compounds involved in organic functioning. These include amino acids involved in cell function, a whole variety of chemicals called alkaloids, which individually have anti-bacterial, anaesthetic or stimulant properties when consumed by humans.


In other words, there are other chemicals rolled up with natural vitamins, which help unlock their benefit.

Lycopene Health Benefits

Scientists have known for decades that the lycopene present in tomatoes has a whole range of health-promoting properties and is one of the main reasons why Mediterranean races live longer and suffer lower rates of heart disease and cancer than people in Britain and other more Northern countries.  But lycopene seems to work differently from other plant nutrients absorbed by humans. Unlike many other fruit and vegetable nutrients which are most beneficial when consumed fresh from the plant, lycopene molecules are particularly large and are better absorbed in the human body when tomatoes have been broken down by cooking.

Scientists studying lycopene reasoned that people born at Northern latitudes not only don’t eat enough tomatoes, they may also lack the metabolism to fully absorb the lycopene benefit from the tomatoes they do eat.

If blood lycopene levels can be boosted in these Northern races the benefits can be dramatic. A study published last October involving more than 1,000 Finnish men aged 45-65, whose health was monitored for more than 12 years, showed those with the highest lycopene levels had half the risk of suffering a stroke. (1)

Another study of more than 27,000 American women also published last year, found those with the highest tomato intake had the lowest cholesterol levels. (2)

If a way could be found to boost this absorption process, it would be possible to dramatically improve the health-giving properties of lycopene, and offer it as an easy-to-use dietary supplement.

A research team funded by the well-respected food company Nestle, set about unlocking this problem in the 1990s.

What Is Lactolycopene?

After years of studying the chemical structure of lycopene, they announced in 2002 they had cracked it. By binding lycopene molecules with components from milk whey, the watery part of milk, they have been able to produce a new product called lactolycopene, which passes readily through the walls of the digestive system.

It is this new compound which is now incorporated in the formulation of a natural health supplement called Ateronon and studies have shown a marked increase in blood lycopene levels among people taking a daily dose of Ateronon.

Research projects to prove additional benefits from the enhanced bioavailability of this new molecule are already underway, and the first results have already been presented by Cambridge University to medical experts at the American Heart Association annual meeting last winter.

The Cambridge scientists have shown that after just two months use, Ateronon dramatically improved the function of cells lining the blood vessels in heart disease patients, improving flow and responsiveness to the demands of exercise.

The results from bigger studies in larger groups of people are now eagerly awaited. Ateronon may not only improve health, but may allow heart disease patients to cut down on other medication.


(1) Karppi J, Laukkanen JA, Sivenius J, Ronkainen K, Kurl S.   Serum lycopene decreases the risk of stroke in men: a population-based follow-up study.  Neurology. 2012 Oct 9;79(15):1540-7. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31826e26a6.


Department of Medicine, Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland. [email protected]

(2)  Sesso HD, Wang L, Ridker PM, Buring JE. Tomato-based food products are related to clinically modest improvements in selected coronary biomarkers in women.  J Nutr. 2012 Feb;142(2):326-33. doi: 10.3945/jn.111.150631. Epub 2012 Jan 5.


Division of Preventive Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.[email protected]

Lauren Grice

This article was written by a health specialist.

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