Beta-carotene is a nutrient and antioxidant found in many foods which we convert to vitamin A. However, many people have never heard of beta-carotene or its brilliant benefits for our health. In this article, we explain everything you need to know about this little-appreciated nutrient, and what beta-carotene is good for in terms of your wellbeing.April 28, 2022 5:15 pm January 12, 2022 3:29 pm
What is beta carotene?
Beta-carotene is an orange-red pigment which occurs naturally in lots of plants. If a fruit or vegetable is orange, yellow or red, there’s a good chance it contains beta-carotene.
This nutrient has a number of health-promoting properties which have attracted scientific interest.(1)
For instance, our bodies can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, which we need for vital processes such as healthy vision.
Furthermore, beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant. Research has also linked it with a reduced risk of certain diseases.
However, it’s still not as widely-known as more ‘famous’ nutrients such as vitamins C and E. Given its impressive health properties, it’s definitely worth your time to understand a bit more about this special nutrient. Let’s start off with where you can source it.
Where can you find beta-carotene?
Brightly-colored fruits and vegetables can be a dead giveaway for the presence of beta-carotene. For example, carrots, apricots, chillis and grapefruits all contain it. We love to source it from our Organic Sea Buckthorn Juice, which is also rich in vitamin C!
However, beta-carotene isn’t limited to orange and red fruit and veg. It’s also present in Chinese cabbage, asparagus and broccoli.
While plants can produce beta-carotene themselves, animals and humans cannot. As a result, we need to source it from our diets. In fact, it’s the main carotenoid in the human diet.(1)
Some companies also make beta-carotene supplements in tablet or capsule form.
What are carotenoids?
The term ‘carotenoid’ covers a vast family of around 750 different pigments, including beta-carotene. Plants, algae and certain types of bacteria can all produce them.(2)
Other types of carotenoid you may have heard of include lycopene, the pigment found in tomatoes, and lutein and zeaxanthin, which may be important in supporting your eye health.
Some carotenoids can be turned into vitamin A, but not all of them.
People who eat a balanced diet which includes a rainbow of healthy fruit and vegetables will get enough beta-carotene to satisfy their needs. However, it’s important to note that in order for us to properly absorb carotenoids from our diet, we need to eat them alongside a small amount of fat.
Cooking and puréeing foods which contain carotenoids also increases their bioavailability, helping us to better absorb them.(2)
In short, if you’re throwing carrots and peppers into your salad, you’ll get the most carotenoid benefits if you drizzle over a little olive oil, or roast them first!
Beta-carotene and vitamin A
Perhaps the best-known benefit of beta-carotene is that it is a major dietary source of vitamin A.
We can break down some of the beta-carotene we get from our diets by essentially chopping the molecule in half, producing retinol. (This is a heavily simplified version of the chemical process, but you get the gist!).(3)
You can therefore get two molecules of vitamin A per molecule of beta-carotene. So, does that mean we effectively get double the vitamin A for every quantity of beta-carotene we consume? Unfortunately not; our bodies are not particularly efficient at converting beta-carotene to vitamin A.
In fact, we need to consume about 12µg of beta-carotene in our diet to produce 1µg of retinol.(2)
"Studies have shown that beta-carotene may help reduce your risk of disease such as cardiovascular disease, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.(1)"
Working out vitamin A and RAE
This brings us nicely onto another subject of some confusion when it comes to vitamin A: the RAE value.(4)
You will often see the initials RAE on food packaging; it stands for ‘Retinol Activity Equivalent’, and helps you to understand how much vitamin A (retinol) you actually get from different carotenoid sources.
12µg dietary beta-carotene = 1µg retinol, therefore:
12µg dietary beta-carotene = 1µg RAE.
To give another example, you’d need to consume 24µg dietary alpha-carotene to get 1µg RAE.
If you want to understand how much vitamin A you’ll get from a particular food, look at the RAE value rather than the amount of carotenoids, as the conversion calculations have been done for you.
Another complicating factor is that our ability to convert beta-carotene into vitamin A is affected by other things such as genetics, health and diet. However, RAE values give a good general guide.
Men above the age of 19 need about 900µg RAE per day, while women need about 700µg RAE. For context, a baked sweet potato provides 1403µg RAE.(4)
Why do we need vitamin A?
Vitamin A plays an important role in immunity, reproduction and communication between cells. However, most people know it best for its importance in healthy vision.(4)
If your granny ever told you when you were a child that carrots help you see in the dark, she was probably right!
The beta-carotene present in the carrots is converted into vitamin A in our bodies. We then use it to make rhodopsin, a protein which is present in our retina and absorbs light.(4)
Vitamin A also helps enhance the immune response against various diseases, and it affects the activity of both antibodies and T-cells (two different cell types involved in fighting off germs).(5)
Furthermore, it plays a role in regulating your blood cells. It does this by controlling the population of a special type of blood cell called a ‘myeloid cell’.(5)
If that wasn’t enough, vitamin A also seems to be involved in DNA expression and deciding how stem cells differentiate into specialized cells such as spermatocytes and fibroblasts.(5)
We’re deep into heavy scientific territory here, but you can see just how important vitamin A is in a wide range of vital bodily functions.