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.
What happens if we don’t get enough vitamin A?
Vitamin A deficiency is thankfully rare in the Western world, but it can be a problem in developing countries. It can pose a particular threat during periods of life when the body is naturally using up a lot of nutrients, such as childhood, pregnancy and lactation.(4)
Chronic diarrhoea can also exacerbate the problem. It can even turn into a vicious cycle as diarrhoea can lead to vitamin A deficiency, but vitamin A deficiency also makes diarrhoea more likely.
As a result of vitamin A deficiency, some children and women in developing countries develop xerophthalmia, or ‘night blindness’. This means they are less able to see in low light. A common symptom of xerophthalmia is dry, foamy-looking lesions on the eyeball called ‘Bitot’s spots’.(4)
However, even before xerophthalmia takes hold, vitamin A deficiency can make you more susceptible to infections like measles.(4)
Other benefits of beta-carotene
Making lots of vitamin A for us to use is not the only string in beta-carotene’s bow.
We also tend to store plenty of beta-carotene which we do not convert into vitamin A, and it has health benefits of its own. Let’s look at a few of these.
It’s a powerful antioxidant
As mentioned above, beta-carotene acts as a brilliant antioxidant.(1)
To give a potted summary, free radicals are created during your body’s natural processes. They are a type of unstable molecule which is released during activities such as exercise. Your body is able to neutralize many of them before they cause any damage.
However, factors such as smoking and pollution can mean that your cells produce more free radicals than your body can handle. As a result, you enter a state known as ‘oxidative stress’, and the excess free radicals begin to damage your cells. Even worse, free radicals can cause a chain reaction which means the damage spreads.
Antioxidants from your diet, such as beta-carotene, can help stop this process in its tracks, limiting any damage.
This is why it’s so important to source antioxidants from your food. Luckily, they can be easily found in fruits and vegetables.
For more detailed information on antioxidants, head over to our article all about how antioxidants work.
It may help decrease your risk of some diseases
Studies have shown that beta-carotene may help reduce your risk of disease such as cardiovascular disease, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.(1)
Some scientists have suggested that the protective effects of beta-carotene may be down to its potency as an antioxidant.
A meta-analysis of studies on beta-carotene found that having higher levels of beta-carotene in your system may reduce your risk of overall mortality.(6)
There’s also some evidence that beta-carotene might play a role in bone health. Studies have shown that a higher intake of alpha and beta-carotene may be inversely associated with the risk of hip fractures in men.(2)
All this points to the positive effects of making sure you’re getting enough beta-carotene in your diet. But what if you’re tempted to bypass the pumpkin, carrots and sea buckthorn and head to the supplements aisle of the pharmacy instead?
At Erbology, we always advise our customers to source their nutrients from healthy whole foods rather than supplements. This is because you get greater transparency and because we believe that the best way to consume your nutrients is in a natural, unprocessed way. (You can read more about our approach to supplements in our article ‘are supplements safe?’)
However there are even more reasons to be cautious if you’re considering a beta-carotene supplement.
A study which investigated whether supplemental beta-carotene could help prevent cancer in smokers actually found that it had negative treatment effects.(7)
Some commentators have suggested that this is because taking too high a dose of beta-carotene can be harmful. The reasons for this aren’t yet clear.
The NHS suggests that people can get the beta-carotene they need from their diet, but if you do decide to take a supplement, they advise not to take more than 7mg of beta-carotene per day.
Meanwhile, people who smoke or have been exposed to asbestos are not advised to take any beta-carotene supplements at all.(8)
Getting beta-carotene from your diet
On the other hand, getting beta-carotene from the food you eat is both easy and safe!
If you want to reap the health benefits of this incredible pigment, antioxidant and vitamin A precursor, simply remember to include a few beta-carotene-rich foods in your diet.
That could mean serving a side of broccoli with your dinner, or blitzing up a delicious sweet potato and chilli soup.
Or, easier still, add a shot of our Organic Sea Buckthorn Juice to your daily routine. Not only does it contain beta-carotene, it’s rich in other health-supporting nutrients too. These include vitamin C and omega-7.
Drink it neat to refresh and reenergize you first thing in the morning, or mix it with orange juice or a smoothie for a hit of healthy nutrients.
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