Beta carotene is a plant pigment that gives red, orange, and yellow vegetables their vibrant color.
Beta carotene is considered a provitamin A carotenoid, meaning that the body can convert it into vitamin A (retinol).
Additionally, beta carotene has powerful antioxidant properties.
The name is derived from the Latin word for carrot. Beta carotene was discovered by the scientist Heinrich Wilhelm Ferdinand Wackenroder, who crystallized it from carrots in 1831.
This article looks at:
- the benefits of beta carotene
- which foods contain it
- how much your body needs
- possible risks related to beta carotene supplements
In addition to serving as a dietary source of provitamin A, beta carotene functions as an antioxidant.
Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals. When free-radical numbers get too high in the body, causing an imbalance, it leads to cellular and tissue damage, known as oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is a
Plenty of research shows that diets rich in antioxidants can boost health.
By reducing oxidative stress in the body, antioxidants may help protect against conditions such as:
- certain cancers
- heart disease
- cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease
Research has linked eating foods rich in beta carotene and taking beta carotene supplements with the following health benefits:
Better cognitive function
Beta carotene may improve your cognitive function, according to some studies, due to its antioxidant effects.
A 2018 Cochrane review that included eight studies that focused on antioxidants, including beta carotene, found small benefits associated with beta carotene supplementation on cognitive function and memory.
Keep in mind that the cognitive benefits related to beta carotene were only associated with long-term supplementation over an average of 18 years.
That said, the researchers didn’t find a significant effect in the short term, and they concluded that more research is needed.
The potential benefits of beta carotene supplements on cognitive health needs more research.
Good skin health
Beta carotene may also help boost your skin’s health. Again, this is likely due to its antioxidant effects.
The researchers note, though, that the sun protection dietary beta carotene provides is considerably lower than using a topical sunscreen.
Research into the effect of beta carotene on lung health is mixed.
Vitamin A, which the body creates from beta carotene, helps the lungs work properly.
In addition, people who eat plenty of food that contains beta carotene might have a lower risk for certain kinds of cancer, including lung cancer.
That said, studies have not shown that supplements have the same effect as eating fresh vegetables.
In fact, taking beta carotene supplements might actually increase the risk of developing lung cancer for people who smoke.
Diets rich in carotenoids like beta carotene may help promote eye health and protect against diseases that affect the eyes including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that causes vision loss.
May reduce the risk of certain cancers
In general, health experts usually recommend eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which are full of vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds that work together to support health over taking beta carotene supplements.
Beta carotene is a potent antioxidant that may benefit your brain, skin, lung, and eye health. Food sources are likely a safer, more healthful choice than beta carotene supplements.
Beta carotene is concentrated in fruits and veggies with a red, orange, or yellow color.
However, don’t shy away from dark leafy greens or other green veggies, as they contain a good amount of this antioxidant as well.
Some research has shown that cooked carrots provide more carotenoids than raw carrots. Adding olive oil can also increase the bioavailability of carotenoids.
Beta carotene is a fat-soluble compound, which is why eating this nutrient with a fat improves its absorption.
The foods highest in beta carotene include:
- dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach
- sweet potatoes
- butternut squash
- red and yellow peppers
- romaine lettuce
Beta carotene is also found in herbs and spices such as:
For reference, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food database gives the following details on beta carotene content:
- 100 grams of cooked carrots provides
8,279 micrograms (mcg)of beta carotene.
- 100 grams of cooked spinach without fat added provides about
6,103 mcgof beta carotene.
- 100 grams of boiled sweet potato contains
9,406 mcgof beta carotene.
Pairing these foods, herbs, and spices with a healthy fat, such as olive oil, avocado, or nuts and seeds, can help the body absorb them better.
Carrots, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens are among the best sources of beta carotene. Add a little oil to help the body absorb the nutrient.
Most people can get enough beta carotene through their food without having to use supplements, so long as they eat a range of vegetables.
There’s no established recommended daily allowance (RDA) for beta carotene. The RDA for beta carotene is included as part of the RDA for vitamin A.
Because both preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids are found in food, the daily recommendations for vitamin A are given as Retinol Activity Equivalents (RAE).
This accounts for the differences between preformed vitamin A (found in animal foods and supplements) and provitamin A carotenoids like beta carotene.
According to the ODS, adult females should get 700 mcg RAE per day, while adult males need 900 mcg RAE per day.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women need 770 mcg RAE and 1,300 mcg RAE, respectively.
Although there’s an established tolerable upper intake level (UL) set for preformed vitamin A, there’s no UL set for provitamin A carotenoids like beta carotene.
This is because beta carotene and other carotenoids are unlikely to cause health issues even when consumed at high doses.
However, keep in mind that, unlike foods rich in beta carotene, beta carotene supplements have different effects on health and may lead to negative effects.
The UL for preformed vitamin A is set at 3,000 mcg for both men and women, including women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
If you’re considering taking supplements, talk to a doctor about your individual needs and possible risks. Discuss certain medications or lifestyle factors that may influence dosing and needs.
Adults should generally get between 700 and 900 mcg RAE of vitamin A per day. The RDA includes both preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids like beta carotene.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), beta carotene supplements are not linked with major negative effects, even with large supplement doses of 20-–30 mg per day.
Eating lots of carotenoid-rich food for long periods is not associated with toxicity.
Over time, eating extremely high amounts beta carotene can result in a harmless condition called carotenodermia, where the skin turns a yellow-orange color.
However, it’s suggested that people who smoke avoid beta carotene supplements.
People who smoke, and possibly those who used to smoke, should avoid beta carotene supplements and multivitamins that provide more than 100 percent of their daily value for vitamin A, either through preformed retinol or beta carotene.
This is because studies have linked high supplement doses of these nutrients with an increased risk of lung cancer in people who smoke.
It’s also important to keep in mind that high doses of any antioxidant in supplemental form may interfere with the absorption of other important nutrients and may negatively affect the body’s natural defense system.
Health experts usually recommend eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which are full of antioxidants as well as other important nutrients over taking beta carotene supplements.
Beta carotene supplements are generally safe, but they may present risks for people who smoke or used to smoke. Dietary sources are generally recommended over supplementation.
Beta carotene is an important dietary compound and an important source of vitamin A. Research has linked beta carotene intake with various health benefits.
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the best way to increase your beta carotene intake and prevent disease.
Talk with your doctor or registered dietitian about specific ways to increase your intake of beta carotene.
Always consult your healthcare provider before taking a supplement to ensure that it’s an appropriate and safe choice for your health.