Lycopene, a compound in red fruits and vegetables linked to a lower risk of various cancers, may help to prevent bone loss after menopause, according to an animal study published online in the journal Bone.

Daily lycopene supplements significantly increased bone density in rats without ovaries compared with controls that didn’t get lycopene. Bone density in lycopene-treated rats was similar to rats given bisphosphonates, drugs used to treat osteoporosis in people.

Unexpectedly, estrogen and other sex hormones increased in lycopene-treated rats compared with controls, the study found. The sudden drop in estrogen that occurs after menopause is associated with an increased risk of fractures.

Lycopene is a natural pigment, or carotenoid, which is especially prevalent in processed tomato products, such as tomato sauce. Studies have associated lycopene with a reduced risk of prostate and breast cancers.

In the latest study, scientists in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. gave three varied doses of lycopene dissolved in corn oil once a day to female rats, starting one day after surgery to remove the ovaries. Another group got the bisphosphonate drug alendronate (Fosamax) in an amount equivalent to the recommended dose for people.

The lycopene doses were also similar to the range prescribed for people, the study said. The doses are “achievable through diet in humans and the range conformed to the daily recommended levels of lycopene intake,” it said. Two groups of control rats, one with and one without surgically removed ovaries, received plain corn oil.

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