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Importance of Beta-Carotene

January 9, 2008

By Melanie McGrath

Beta-Carotene is probably the most well known of the carotenoids, which are highly pigmented (red, orange, and yellow) fat-soluble compounds naturally presented in many fruits, grains, oil and vegetables. Beta-carotene is considered a provitamin because they can be converted to active vitamin A. Vitamin A serves several biological functions including involvement in the synthesis of certain glycoproteins, which is a molecule composed of a protein and a carbohydrate. Vitamin A deficiency leads to abnormal bone development, disorders of the reproductive system, and ultimately death. Beta-carotene is also converted to retinol, which is essential for vision[i.

Various studies were carried out throughout the 1970-80s to determine its suitability for use in food, and its activity in the body. In the early 1980’s it was suggested that beta-carotene might be useful in preventing cancer, and it was found to be an antioxidant. More recently beta-carotene has been claimed to prevent a number of diseases, including cystic fibrosis and arthritis, and there is a flourishing trade in vitamin supplements containing beta-carotene. Foods rich in Beta-carotene protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, provide a source of vitamin A, enhance the functioning of your immune system and help your reproductive system function properly.

Beta-carotene has many benefits, such as, it is necessary for growth and repair of body tissue, it helps maintain smooth, soft disease-free skin, it helps protect the mucous membranes on the mouth, nose, throat and lungs, thereby reducing susceptibility to infections, it protects against air pollutants, it counteracts night-blindness and weak eyesight, and it aids in bona and teeth formation. Current medical research shows that food rich in Beta Carotene will help reduce the risk of lung cancer and certain oral cancers. Also, unlike Vitamin A from fish liver oil, beta-carotene is non-toxic. Some symptoms that may show if you don’t have enough beta carotene in your diet include an increased susceptibility to infections, rough, dry, scaly skin, loss of smell and appetite, lack of tearing, and defective teeth and gum growth[ii].

Dietary intakes studies suggest an association between diets rich in beta-carotene and vitamin A and a lower risk of many types of cancer. A higher intake of foods containing beta-carotene may decrease the risk of lung cancer. However, a number of studies that tested the role of beta-carotene supplements in cancer prevention did not find them to protect against the disease. Beta-carotene supplements are not advisable for the general public[iii].

In certain cases, cooking can improve the availability of carotenoids in foods. Lightly steamed carrots and spinach improves your body’s ability to absorb carotenoids in these foods. It is very important to cook your food from scratch so you get the full benefits from these foods[iv]. Beta-carotene can be found in yellow, orange, and green leafy fruits and vegetables. These can be carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, oranges and winter squash. As a rule of thumb, the greater intensity of the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more beta-carotene it contains.

[i] Evens, Martha “History of Beta-Carotene” http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/carotene/beta-carotene_history.html
[ii] Beta-Carotene (Vitamin A precursor) http://www.drlera.com/health_beauty/nutrition_information/beta_carotene.htm
[iii] Office of dietary supplements (2007) “Dietary supplement fact sheet: vitamin A and carotenoids” http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamina.asp
[iv] WHFods (2007) ‘beta-carotene’ http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=125



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