Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits, especially carrots and colorful vegetables.
The name beta-carotene comes from the Greek "beta" and Latin "carota" (carrot). It is the yellow/orange pigment that gives vegetables and fruits their rich colors. H. Wachenroder crystallized beta-carotene from carrot roots in 1831, and came up with the name "carotene".
Beta-carotene's chemical formula - C40H56 - was discovered in 1907.
The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A (retinol) - beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A. We need vitamin A for healthy skin and mucus membranes, our immune system, and good eye health and vision.
Beta-carotene in itself is not an essential nutrient, but vitamin A is.
Fast facts on beta-carotene
Here are some key points about beta-carotene. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Beta-carotene is a red/orange pigment found in many fresh fruits and vegetables
- Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A, an essential vitamin
- Vitamin A is toxic at high levels
- Beta-carotene is a carotenoid and an antioxidant
- Foods rich in vitamin A include onions, carrots, peas, spinach and squash
- One study showed that smokers with high beta-carotene intake might have an increased risk of lung cancer
- Some evidence suggests that beta-carotene might slow cognitive decline
- Beta-carotene supplements interact with certain drugs, including statins and mineral oil
- Beta-carotene might help older people retain their lung strength as they age.
Beta-carotene from food is a safe source of vitamin A
Vitamin A can be sourced from the food we eat, through beta-carotene, for example, or in supplement form. The advantage of dietary beta-carotene is that the body only converts as much as it needs.
Excess vitamin A is toxic. Toxic vitamin A levels can occur if you consume too many supplements.
Beta-carotene is an antioxidant
The flamingo's characteristic red-orange color is caused by beta-carotene in their diet.
Beta-carotene, like all carotenoids, is an antioxidant. An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules; it protects the body from free radicals.
Free radicals damage cells through oxidation. Eventually, the damage caused by free radicals can cause several chronic illnesses.
Some studies have suggested that those who consume at least four daily servings of beta-carotene rich fruits and/or vegetables have a lower risk of developing cancer or heart disease.
Which foods are rich in beta-carotene?
The following foods are rich in beta-carotene:
- Chinese cabbage
- Dandelion leaves
- Herbs and spices - chilli powder, oregano, paprika, parsley
- Many margarines
- Sweet potatoes.
If you follow a healthy diet rich in beta-carotene you do not need supplements. As mentioned above, supplements can lead to undesirable excesses in beta-carotene levels - this cannot occur if your source is from the food you eat.
On the next page, we look at further health benefits of beta-carotene and the possible interactions it can have with certain drugs.