All You Need To Know About Beta-Carotene: Health Benefits And Side Effects
Beta carotene is a provitamin the body converts into vitamin A (retinol), which is vital for healthy skin and mucus membranes, proper immune system function, and good eye health and vision. Although beta-carotene is not an essential nutrient, vitamin A is.
Except for being vitamin A’s precursor, beta-carotene, just like all carotenoids, is also a powerful antioxidant that has been scientifically proven to fight cancer. Antioxidants are substances that prevent the oxidation of other molecules, thus protecting the body from free radicals. Free radicals, on the other hand, damage cells through oxidation, and eventually lead to a number of chronic illnesses including cancer.
A number of studies have found that people who consume at least four servings of fruits or vegetables rich in beta-carotene on a regular daily basis are at a much lower risk of developing cancer or heart disease.
The body can convert every 12 micrograms of beta-carotene from fruits and vegetables to an average of 1 microgram of vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol activity equivalent, or RAE. Still, the exact amount of beta-carotene converted into RAE differs from person to person. The process of conversion in the body starts with beta-carotene cells being split in half to form retinal in the cells of the small intestine and liver. Retinal is then converted into retinol or retinoic acid, both of which are active forms of vitamin A. While retinal supports the transmission of visual information from the eyes to the brain, retinol is essential for the skin and reproductive health. Retinoic acid is a hormone that control gene expression and protein synthesis.
Beta-Carotene Health Benefits
As mentioned above, beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant that improves health on many different levels. The list of health benefits includes:
- It prevents oxidation of molecules,
- it protects cells against free radical damage,
- it strengthens the immune system,
- it keeps the reproductive system healthy,
- it slows down cognitive decline,
- it reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease, and
- it helps older people retain their lung strength as they age.
Foods Rich in Beta-Carotene
The list of the top 10 foods rich in beta-carotene includes:
Carrots are the richest source of beta-carotene (lycopene, too!). A ¾ cup of orange juice provides 1,692 milligrams of this nutrient, while ½ cup of cooked carrots is packed with 671 milligrams of vitamin A.
½ cup of canned pumpkin provides 953 milligrams of vitamin A.
#3 Sweet potatoes
A medium-sized sweet potato packs 1,096 milligrams vitamin A, skin included.
Although it doesn’t have the orange color commonly associated with beta-carotene, spinach is also an ample source of this health-boosting nutrient. Half a cup of spinach provides 573 milligrams of vitamin A.
With 489 milligrams of vitamin A, collards are also one of the richest sources of beta-carotene.
Half a cup serving of kale provides 478 milligrams of beta-carotene in the form of vitamin A.
#7 Turnip greens
Half a cup of turnip greens contains 441 milligrams of vitamin A along with high content of vitamins K and C.
#8 Beet greens
Beet greens are another root vegetable that abounds in vitamin A. Half a cup serving of this food packs 276 milligrams.
#9 Winter squash
This winter delicacy contains almost as much beta-carotene as turnip and beet greens.
#10 Sweet Red Peppers
A large sweet green pepper contains 341 milligrams of beta-carotene and a large sweet yellow pepper contains 223 milligrams.
Other foods that are also ample sources of this important nutrient include:
- sour cherries
Key Points About Beta-Carotene
- Beta-carotene is a red/orange pigment found in many fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A, an essential vitamin for proper body function.
- Beta-carotene is a carotenoid and an antioxidant.
- Seed oil, such as sunflower oil, enhances absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as beta-carotene in the body. Beta-carotene absorption in the small intestine can be increased by mixing some sunflower seeds with diced squash, for instance.
- High levels of vitamin A are toxic.
- Smokers with high beta-carotene intake run a higher risk of lung cancer.
- Beta-carotene supplements interact with certain medications, such as statins and mineral oil.
- The recommended daily intake of RAE for adults is 700 micrograms for women and 900 micrograms for men.