Beta carotene is an antioxidant that converts to vitamin A and plays a very important role in health. It’s responsible for the red, yellow, and orange coloration of some fruits and veggies.
The name is derived from the Latin word for carrot. Beta carotene was discovered by the scientist H. Wackenroder, who crystallized it from carrots in 1831.
Antioxidants such as beta carotene play crucial roles in the body’s fight against free radicals. There’s a lot of evidence to support the intake of antioxidants in order to help reach optimal wellness. Consuming beta carotene has been linked to the following:
Improving cognitive function
One study involved more than 4,000 men over an 18-year period. It linked the long-term consumption of beta carotene to a slowing of cognitive decline. However, no significant difference was found over a short-term period. There may have been other contributing factors in the group that consumed beta carotene long-term.
Promoting good skin health
Taking beta carotene may reduce sun sensitivity for certain people who have the blood disorder erythropoietic protoporphyria. It may also have this effect for people with other photosensitive diseases.
Beta carotene may also reduce the effect of phototoxic drugs. Other research has shown that it may prevent skin damage and contribute to maintenance of skin health and appearance. This is due to its antioxidant properties. However, studies are inconclusive and more research needs to be done.
Contributing to lung health
High doses of beta carotene (15-milligram supplements) may increase the likelihood of lung cancer for smokers. However, a recent study involving more than 2,700 people suggested that eating fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids such as beta carotene had a protective effect against lung cancer.
Reducing macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a disease that affects vision. According to researchers, taking high doses of beta carotene in combination with vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and copper may reduce the risk of advanced AMD by 25 percent.
However, higher intakes of beta carotene have been linked to higher incidence of lung cancer for smokers. Because of this, the formula was later modified and beta carotene was removed. For those who aren’t smokers, there were no issues with taking beta carotene, but food sources are always the safest source of beta carotene.
According to the National Cancer Institute, antioxidants such as beta carotene can reduce or prevent free radical damage. This type of damage has been linked to cancer. However, many observational studies have shown mixed results. In general, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables full of phytochemicals and antioxidants is recommended over supplementing beta carotene. This is particularly true for those who already have cancer.
Beta carotene is predominately found 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 studies have shown that higher amounts of beta carotene are found in cooked forms of fruits and veggies compared to raw. Because beta carotene converts to the fat-soluble vitamin A, it’s important to consume this nutrient with a fat for best absorption.
Foods highest in beta carotene include:
- sweet potatoes
- dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach
- romaine lettuce
- red and yellow peppers
Beta carotene is also found in herbs and spices such as:
Pairing these foods, herbs, and spices with a healthy fat such as olive oil, avocado, or nuts and seeds can help their absorption. Check out these 10 delicious herbs and spices with other powerful health benefits.
There is no established recommended daily allowance for beta carotene. However, according to the Mayo Clinic dosing guidelines for supplementing, it’s safe to consume 6–15 milligrams (mg) of beta carotene per day. This is equivalent to 10,000–25,000 units of vitamin A activity — about 70 percent of women’s daily needs and 55 percent of men’s. For children, 3–6 mg of beta carotene daily is acceptable (5,000–10,000 units of vitamin A activity, or 50–83 percent of children’s daily needs).
Whenever considering supplementation, talk with your doctor about your individual needs and any risks involved. Discuss certain medications or lifestyle factors that may influence dosing and needs.
You can get enough beta carotene through your food without having to supplement as long as you’re mindful. For example, according to nutrient data provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, in about 3.5 ounces of raw carrots you’ll get 8.285 mg of beta carotene. Cooked carrots provide a slightly higher concentration amount at 8.332 mg per 3.5-ounce serving due to the water loss. And 60 grams (g) of cooked spinach provides about 7 mg of beta carotene. If you like sweet potatoes, keep in mind that 100 g of boiled sweet potato provides about 4 mg.
Supplementing beta carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer for smokers and for those with asbestosis. A 2008 review of studies from the last three decades involving 109,394 subjects revealed that beta carotene supplementation significantly increased lung cancer risk after 18 months of supplementation. Lung cancer risk was highest among smokers who took multivitamins containing beta carotene.
This research contrasts with the findings of a 1996 study. The study found that taking 50 mg of beta carotene every other day for 12 years produced no increase in lung cancer incidence in the 22,000 males who were involved in the study. These subjects were either smokers or former smokers.
Supplementing beta carotene in high doses is not recommended for smokers. But consuming beta carotene through foods has been shown to be safe and actually decrease the risk of cancer and maybe heart disease as well.
Overall, it’s always important to ensure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants in your diet. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the best way to increase your beta carotene intake and prevent disease. Discuss with your doctor or registered dietitian the specific ways to increase your intake of beta carotene and if it’s appropriate for you.