Beta Carotene: What is it, and What is it Good For?

If you’ve ever been told to make sure that the colors of the rainbow are represented on your plate, it’s likely that you’re receiving plenty of beta carotene. This brightly colored pigment not only makes fruits and vegetables look extra appetizing, it also packs a significant nutritional punch that delivers powerful antioxidant effects. Not many people are familiar with beta carotene and its relationship to vitamin A, an essential vitamin that we need in order to function properly.

Beta carotene offers a number of significant health benefits and may be able to help lower your risk of experiencing serious health conditions, including certain types of cancer. Beta carotene can be found in lots of different fruits and vegetables, but if your diet isn’t heavy on these foods, you might not be getting enough of this important nutrient. What is beta carotene and what is it good for?

What is beta carotene?

Beta carotene is a red-orange pigment that is a precursor of vitamin A, also known as retinol. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble essential vitamin, meaning that the body cannot manufacture vitamin A on its own. Instead, the body converts the beta carotene we receive from food into vitamin A. Although beta carotene itself is not an essential nutrient, vitamin A is. The red-orange pigment of beta carotene is what gives carrots and other colorful vegetables their distinctive coloring. In general, the body needs vitamin A for support of the following:

  •       Healthy skin and mucus membranes
  •       The immune system
  •       Good eye health and vision.

Beta carotene belongs to a group of orange, red, and yellow pigments called carotenoids. Although there are numerous precursors to vitamin A, beta carotene and other carotenoids are responsible for providing about 50 percent of the vitamin A we receive in our diets. Like other carotenoids, beta carotene is an antioxidant, which means that it has properties that help protect the cells and DNA from damage caused by a naturally occurring substance in the body called free radicals.

Fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A are stored in the liver when they are received in excess, which can lead to toxic levels of these vitamins in the system. Vitamin A toxicity most commonly occurs when people take too many supplements or medications that contain vitamin A. However, when the body receives beta carotene in a dietary form, it only converts as much beta carotene into vitamin A as it needs. The remainder is eliminated through the urine.

What is beta carotene good for?

Beta carotene is a powerful antioxidant in the body that has many benefits for human health. Some of the noted benefits of beta carotene are outlined below.

Antioxidant properties

Carotenoids like beta carotene are antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that protect the cells and DNA against oxidation, or damage caused by substances called free radicals. Free radicals are produced by the body as a byproduct of cellular respiration, and when the amount of antioxidants and free radicals in the body becomes unbalanced, a condition called oxidative stress can occur. Oxidative stress is tied to an increased risk of developing significant health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Receiving an adequate amount of antioxidants like beta carotene helps to defend the immune system, minimize inflammation, protect against free radicals, and reduce the risk of developing cancer and heart disease.

Prevention of cognitive decline

As noted above, an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants can result in a condition called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is believed to play a significant role in cognitive decline, so preventing oxidative stress may help to slow the progression of the condition. A 2007 study showed that men who have been taking beta carotene supplements for 15 years or longer are significantly less likely to experience cognitive decline than men who do not take the supplements. The study followed more than 4,000 men for an average of 18 years and compared the risk of cognitive decline between men taking a beta carotene supplement and those taking a placebo. While the use of beta carotene supplements did not make a difference in the risk of experiencing cognitive decline in the short term, beta carotene supplements were found to significantly lower the risk of experiencing the condition in the long term. More research is needed to determine the link between beta carotene and cognitive decline, but the early results are promising.

Prevent lung damage

The damage caused by free radicals doesn’t stop in the brain; free radical damage can also impact the lungs. One of the functions of vitamin A is to support lung health and help the lungs work properly. A study published in 2006 found that people with high blood levels of beta carotene were able to breathe out more air at once as they age compared to those with lower beta carotene blood levels. The study measured FEV1, which is a measurement that demonstrates how much air a person can breathe out in one breath. The FEV1 measures in patients with high blood levels of beta carotene declined more slowly over time than those who had lower levels. Additionally, a study of more than 2,500 people conducted in 2017 found that a diet rich in beta carotene had a protective effect against lung cancer.

Support skin health

The antioxidant effects of beta carotene have also been linked to healthier skin and may diminish the appearance of premature signs of aging. Beta carotene improves the ability of the skin to protect itself against UV radiation and helps to preserve the health and appearance of the skin. Don’t throw your sunscreen away just yet, though – the sun protection offered by beta carotene is still less than using sunscreen.

Support eye health

Vitamin A is essential for eye health, and carotenoids like beta carotene play a critical role. Carotenoids help promote eye health and protect against age-related macular degeneration and other diseases that affect the eyes and can cause vision loss. Studies have shown that having high levels of beta carotene and other carotenoids in the blood can reduce the risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration by as much as 35 percent. People who smoke can reduce their risk of experiencing AMD by eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables that contain beta carotene.

Lower the risk of certain cancers

As noted above, one of the benefits of antioxidants like beta carotene is that they can help protect against the development of some kinds of cancer, including lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and premenopausal breast cancer. Scientists believe that this lower risk is related to the reduction in inflammation and the lower risk of experiencing oxidative stress associated with antioxidants, as oxidative stress is often linked to serious health conditions, including cancer.

What are some natural sources of beta carotene?

Beta carotene is commonly found in many different types of foods, many of which most people consume on a regular basis. Thus, vitamin A deficiency is uncommon. Natural sources of beta carotene include:

  • Apricots
  • Carrots
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Grapefruit
  • Many margarines
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Chives
  • Kale
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Ketchup
  • Peppers
  • Plums
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Chili
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne
  • Marjoram
  • Sage
  • Coriander

People who have difficulty absorbing vitamin A, who are picky eaters, or who do not have access to fruits and vegetables may be at risk of experiencing a vitamin A deficiency. However, vitamin A deficiency is relatively uncommon.

Is it possible to get too much beta carotene?

Beta carotene is commonly found in many different foods, so most people who eat a variety of fruits and vegetables will get enough beta carotene in their diets without needing to supplement their diets. The Office of Dietary Supplements in the Institute of Medicine has not established a recommended daily allowance for beta carotene; instead, the recommended daily allowance for beta carotene is included as part of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin A. The recommended daily allowance for vitamin A is expressed as Retinol Activity Equivalents (RAE) for both preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids like beta carotene in order to account for the differences between vitamin A and carotenoids. The Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that women receive 700 mcg RAE per day and men receive 900 mcg RAE per day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are recommended to receive 770 mcg RAE and 1,300 mcg RAE, respectively. While no upper limit for beta carotene has been established, it is worth noting that the upper limit for preformed vitamin A is 3,000 mcg for all people. Preformed vitamin A is commonly found in dietary supplements. Beta carotene is eliminated from the body through urine if an excess of the antioxidant is received, which means that it is unlikely to cause health issues. However, it is always best to speak to your doctor before taking any dietary supplement, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or have other health issues that may impact your dietary intake of vitamins.