Most of us know carrots as fantastic food for eye health. This is a repeated health fact, and it is absolutely truthful, despite the cliché. But there’s much more to say if we go more in-depth and investigate the reasons.
There’s more to it than meets the eye, and beta-carotene is all behind these health benefits. It is a nutrient found in carrots and many other foods. And it has many other benefits besides being great for your eyesight.
Beta-carotene is a type of substance present in colored vegetables. It is what gives color to carrots, sweet potatoes, and other foods. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids protect plants from UV radiation and other harms.
In humans and other species, the benefit is similar, but it is also converted into vitamin A. So, it works as an antioxidant, photoprotective, and provitamin substance (1).
If you want to know more about beta-carotene, we’re reviewing for you the benefits, dosages, safety concerns, and the top 10 list of foods high in beta-carotene.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of beta-carotene in foods go way beyond eye health, as you will see below. Here are the primary benefits associated with consuming high beta carotene foods.
Better cognitive function
According to studies, beta-carotene may improve cognitive function. They may even work to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and similar health problems. Antioxidants are recognized as helpful in treating degenerative diseases. They are used to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s, but also diabetes and cirrhosis.
A recent study evaluated what would happen if we use beta-carotenes in cases of memory impairment. According to animal models, beta-carotenes reduce the rate of memory loss and other cognitive function problems. It might have a strong neuroprotective potential we can use to achieve a better cognition.
In a practical sense, it can be used before Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases appear. It may also slow down the progression of the disease and improve mental function (2).
According to these researchers and other experts, foods high in beta-carotene can help us maintain a youthful brain function. Another article published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a promising report. They suggest that beta-carotenes protect against mental decline. After eating beta-carotene supplements for around 18 years, patients had a better memory than those who didn’t take the supplements.
According to the researchers, this is probably due to the antioxidant functions of beta-carotenes. They react against free radicals and neutralize their harmful effects on the human brain. Other antioxidants have a similar impact on the brain. Thus, the recommendation is to eat more antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies (3).
Good skin health
As mentioned above, beta-carotene is essential in plants to protect them from sunlight exposure. It has a similar function in the human body when acting on the skin.
After ingesting beta carotene-rich foods, the distribution of carotenoids on the skin is mainly distributed in the forehead and forearm. Other areas with a high distribution of beta-carotene include the palm and the back. These areas are often in contact with sun exposure, at least more than the feet, legs, and abdominal area. These carotenoids are mainly located in the top layer of the epidermis.
According to a review published in the journal Molecules, beta-carotene and other carotenoids have several functions in the skin. One of them is slowing down skin aging. It is also an essential means of topical antioxidant protection.
As for skin aging, it has been established that people with a higher concentration of carotenoids in the skin usually look younger. On the other hand, a lower concentration is associated with an older skin appearance.
The wrinkles and furrows become deeper, and the skin loses elasticity. This is not only a biased observation. It is actually backed up by evidence. After releasing this study, the researchers conclude that a healthy diet with carotenoids is essential to slow down skin aging.
One of the reasons for this finding is that more antioxidants are protecting the skin. The administration of high-carotenoid creams and beta carotene supplementation are both useful for that purpose (4).
Similar studies suggest that beta-carotenes have a role in protecting the lungs against the aging process. According to research made by an investigation team in Paris, both beta-carotenes and vitamin E can have a protective effect. They protect the lungs of heavy smokers and may also slow down lung aging in non-smokers.
Similar to what happens in the rest of the body, our lung function starts to decline as we age. This is more evident in tobacco smokers because this habit is associated with an increased risk of oxidative stress in the lungs. But if we take antioxidants in the form of beta-carotene, this decline can be slowed down.
This study in Paris followed men and women, moderate or heavy smokers. Antioxidants levels were taken in the blood, and their lung health was measured. Those who had a higher concentration of beta-carotene had a slower lung health decline.
The target concentration was 0.437 to 3.298 micromoles per liter. Even people who are heavy smokers benefit from beta-carotenes. They could save up to 50 mL of lung function per year by having higher blood beta carotene levels. However, we need to stay away from very high doses known to trigger lung cancer.
Impressively, in this study, other antioxidants were measured. But the only one that showed promise was beta-carotenes with or without vitamin E. Alpha-carotenes, vitamin A, and other antioxidants had no association with lung aging.
According to the researchers, this is because vitamin E and beta-carotene are found in high concentrations in the lungs. In the end, the researchers recommend using beta-carotene to prevent or slow down lung aging. However, smokers are recommended to ask their doctors before using beta-carotene supplements (5).
You have probably heard about the relationship between carotenoids and eye health. We often associate carrots with visual acuity, and this is true. They are excellent foods to maintain your eyesight.
Beta-carotenes is the orange pigment that gives carrots its natural appearance. It is one of the main types of provitamin A substances. So, your body can synthesize a great deal of vitamin A using beta-carotenes. Then, it synthesizes other substances for the eye, such as retinyl palmitate and retinol.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is one of the most important causes of blindness. And, according to scientific evidence, beta-carotenes can protect our eyes against this disease.
Many human trials evaluate beta-carotenes and eye health. One of them is the AREDS1 trial. It evaluated how beta-carotenes and zinc, copper, vitamin C, and vitamin E, protected against AMD. According to this trial, beta-carotene is very useful to prevent eye disease and not only AMD.
The AREDS1 trial used very high concentrations of beta-carotene (17 mg). But other studies show that even 3-6 mg is enough to lower the risk (6).
May reduce the risk of certain cancers
As an antioxidant, beta-carotenes are known to offer a degree of protection against cancer. However, there is convincing evidence that high concentrations are not appropriate for some patients.
For example, smokers are recommended to ask the doctor before using beta-carotenes. There’s evidence of a probable reduction in lung cancer risk, but other lines of evidence point to the opposite direction. So, we should be careful when recommending beta-carotenes to people who smoke very heavily.
On the other hand, there’s also convincing evidence that beta-carotene reduces cancer risk in the gastrointestinal tract. Mouth cancer, pharynx cancer, and larynx cancer are most probably reduced by consuming beta-carotene. Some evidence would also point out prostate cancer and non-melanoma skin cancer. However, more studies are required to make the evidence fully convincing.
In any case, we should not consider beta-carotenes as the ultimate cure for cancer. It is not. It is not a hundred percent reliable method to prevent cancer. But it might give us extra protection against certain types of cancer, as mild as it may be. However, if you want to consume more beta-carotene for cancer, the best source is nature. Most researchers agree that increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables is one of the best cancer prevention strategies (7).
Foods rich in beta carotene
Scientists and health authorities agree that consuming beta-carotene in foods is associated with significant health benefits. There’s a lower risk of toxicity, and you’ll be very unlikely to experience side effects.
So, what’s the best food source of beta-carotene? We may initially name carrots, and they are on the list. But here’s the complete top 10 foods with a higher concentration of beta-carotene:
- Sweet potatoes: Nobody knew that sweet potato was the food with higher carotenoids. It has 11509 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 213% of the recommended dietary allowance. As such, they are one of the best options to increase your beta carotene intake. Plus, they have other vitamins, calcium, selenium, iron, and a lot of fiber. It has been associated with a significant reduction in cancer. Plus, they promote healthier digestion.
- Carrots: We all know carrots as a source of vitamin A, but what about beta-carotene? Cooked carrots have 8332 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, around 77% of the recommended dietary allowance. This root vegetable also has potassium, vitamin K1, fiber, and other antioxidants. It is a fruit with a high proportion of carbs and works great as an afternoon snack with a dip or ham slice.
- Spinach: It is one of the best leafy green vegetables, with an impressive list of nutrients. It gives you 6288 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, around 58% of the recommended dietary allowance. Besides, you will get vitamin K, vitamin C, manganese, iron, magnesium, and many other nutrients. Other green leafy vegetables also have beta-carotenes. The greener vegetables are, the more beta-carotenes they likely have.
- Butternut squash: This winter squash as a nutty and sweet flavor and many vitamins and minerals. It has 4570 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, around 42% of the recommended dietary allowance. It also has a significant proportion of vitamin E and vitamin C. Consuming this fruit may reduce your heart disease and cancer risk. Similar to beta-carotene alone, it may also slow down the rate of mental decline.
- Cantaloupe: This is a great source of beta-carotene when you’re in the middle of summer. It is refreshing, and besides many nutrients, it also has high water content. You get 2020 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 19% of the recommended dietary allowance.
- Roman Lettuce: This type of lettuce is very high in minerals. You can get a lot of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and sodium. You also get 5226 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 48% of the recommended dietary allowance. It has vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, and many other nutrients. Plus, it is widely recommended for weight loss.
- Red Bell Peppers: They have 1525 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 14% of the recommended dietary allowance. Thus, one of the benefits associated with red bell peppers is night vision improvements. It actually has a lot of vitamin A and a high percentage of vitamin C.
- Apricots: It is a source of vitamins and a lot of minerals, especially iron. Apricots also have 1094 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 10% of the recommended dietary allowance. It has helpful fiber, which improves digestion and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
- Broccoli: The reason why broccoli sometimes causes bloating is that it is feeding your gut microbiota. It is an excellent modulator of your gut health and has a lot of fiber. It also has 929 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 9% of the recommended dietary allowance. Plus, vitamin A, E, K, C, and many members of the B vitamin group.
- Green peas: They have up to 760 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams, which is around 7% of the recommended dietary allowance. It is considered a heart-healthy food because it contains a lot of magnesium and potassium. It also has calcium and other important nutrients. Thus, it is widely recommended to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
We can also name some fortified foods, which may contain natural or synthetic beta carotene.
How much beta carotene should you take?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Cancer Institute, 3 to 6 mg of beta-carotene is enough to reduce the risk of degenerative and chronic disease.
Still, there’s not an official dietary intake number because we don’t have enough research. We can still give a few dosage guides and recommendations according to the clinical trials so far.
The correct dosage of beta-carotene depends mostly on age. When taken as a supplement, we can use the following doses:
- To prevent skin burns and skin aging: The typical dose is 25 mg of beta-carotene. It is recommended to use a blend of carotenoids instead of beta-carotene alone. Not all patients should consume such high doses. Thus, it is recommended to talk to your doctor before deciding to consume carotenoids.
- To prevent vision loss and visual problems: A dose of 15-25 mg is usually enough to prevent visual impairments. In these cases, it is appropriate to use a blend of carotenoids and other nutrients. Vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin E are also appropriate. Not all patients should consume such high doses. Thus, it is recommended to talk to your doctor before deciding to consume carotenoids.
- For an inherited light sensitivity disorder: These genetic disorders tend to be severe. Thus, the dosage of beta-carotene rises to 180 mg a day. This is the supplement’s starting dose, but it can go higher, up to 300 mg a day. Not all patients should consume such high doses. Thus, it is recommended to talk to your doctor before deciding to consume carotenoids.
Note that these recommendations may vary widely because there’s not an official guideline. More research is needed before health authorities release an official recommended daily intake.
Are there risks of getting too much?
According to research, there’s no direct toxicity after using beta-carotenoids. As opposed to vitamin A, there’s no toxic limit. When there’s enough vitamin A in the organism, the body stops converting beta-carotenoids. So, you won’t have a vitamin A overdose after a high dose of carotenoids.
Studies are showing very high doses of beta-carotene without any toxicity. Even pregnant women are not at a higher risk of birth defects when they use high doses of beta-carotenoids. Still, that doesn’t mean we can forget about limits when it comes to beta-carotene (8).
As mentioned before throughout this article, heavy smokers should be careful around beta-carotene dietary supplements. There is conflicting data about lung cancer risk, and some studies show a reduction. But convincing evidence points out that high doses might trigger lung cancer in heavy smokers. So, it is better to be careful and use doses below 10 mg unless advised by a doctor.
Beta-carotene is a plant nutrient that gives an orange color to carrots and other foods. It is a plant antioxidant and works the same way in humans. It also protects the skin against UV rays. One of the main benefits is related to visual health. But beta-carotene may also preserve our cognitive function and protect from certain types of cancer.
The usual doses are lower than 10 mg, but higher doses can be used depending on the case. The best idea is to consume high beta carotene foods, but we can also use supplements with a mixed blend of carotenoids and other antioxidants. Just be sure to talk to your doctor before consuming beta-carotene supplements if you’re a regular smoker.