Carotenoids: Everything You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on November 21, 2017Written by Kiara Anthony on November 21, 2017

What are carotenoids?

Carotenoids are pigments in plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria. These pigments produce the bright yellow, red, and orange colors in plants, vegetables, and fruits.

Carotenoids act as a type of antioxidant for humans.

There are more than 600 different types of carotenoids. Some can be converted into vitamin A when released into the body. A few of the most common carotenoids include:

Carotenoids must be consumed through the diet. They are best absorbed through a source of fat. Foods rich in carotenoids include:

How do carotenoids work?

Carotenoids are fat-soluble compounds, meaning they are best absorbed with fat. Unlike some protein-rich foods and vegetables, cooking and chopping carotenoid-rich foods increase the strength of the nutrients when they enter the bloodstream.

Carotenoids are classified into two main groups: xanthophylls and carotenes.

Both types of carotenoids have antioxidant properties. In addition, some carotenoids can be converted into vitamin A, an essential component for human health and growth.

These provitamin A carotenoids include alpha carotene, beta carotene, and beta cryptoxanthin. Non-provitamin A carotenoids include lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.

Xanthophylls

Xanthophylls contain oxygen and sometimes have more of a yellow pigment. Xanthophyll carotenoids protect you from too much sunlight. They are most associated with eye health. Lutein and zeaxanthin fall under the xanthophyll category.

Foods that fall under the xanthophyll category include:

Carotenes

Carotenes do not contain oxygen and are associated with more of an orange pigment. Carotene carotenoids play a significant role in helping plants grow. Beta carotene and lycopene fall under this category of carotenoids.

Foods in the carotene category include:

Health benefits

Carotenoids are beneficial antioxidants that can protect you from disease and enhance your immune system. Provitamin A carotenoids can be converted into vitamin A, which is essential for growth, immune system function, and eye health.

Eye health

Eating carotenoid-rich foods can protect the healthy cells in the eye and prevent the growth of cancerous cells.

One of the leading causes of blindness is macular degeneration, or the degeneration of the center of the retina. Long-term blue light exposure can cause this and negatively affect the delicate parts of the eye. However, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin found in the retina can help to absorb blue light.

Studies show that incorporating at least six milligrams of lutein in your diet a day can decrease your risk of developing macular degeneration by 43 percent. Increasing the amount of lutein and zeaxanthin in your diet can also help to slow or halt current eye damage, and prevent your current condition from progressing.

Cardiovascular health

Carotenoids are antioxidants, lowering inflammation in the body. Though it’s still being researched, carotenoid anti-inflammatory properties have been associated with improving cardiovascular health. Reducing inflammation helps to protect against heart disease and prevents arterial walls from being blocked.

Cancer

Antioxidants protect cells from free radicals, or substances that destroy or damage cell membranes. Increasing carotenoids via your diet can increase the amount of antioxidants and protective cells in your body. This is significant when battling cancer and may be able to prevent cancer growth.

Carotenoids have been associated with lowering cancer risk, specifically lung cancer. When you smoke cigarettes, you ingest harmful chemicals that destroy healthy cells. Though mixed in results, one study showed a small decrease in risk from lung cancer when incorporating carotenoids into your diet. It is even healthier to stop smoking and increase carotenoids in your diet to help your lungs heal as you move past the addiction.

Similarly, carotenoids have been associated with reducing the risk of skin cancer. Some carotenoids can break down into vitamin A, a nutrient that protects against premature skin damage from sun exposure. Both are risks for melanoma, premature wrinkles, and unhealthy skin.

Outlook

Adding more carotenoid-rich foods to your diet can strengthen your immune system and overall health.

While carotenoids are available in vitamin A supplements, consuming them naturally enhances their antioxidant effects. In addition, supplements can be dangerous if they contain high levels of vitamin A, which can be toxic if you take too much.

Talk with your doctor before altering your diet or taking dietary supplements.

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