The orange-coloured compound found in carrots is known as betacarotene. It’s a water-soluble form of vitamin A and can protect the body by acting as an anti-oxidant, helping to deactivate destructive freeradicals. However, beta-carotene is just part of a whole family of carotene compounds, collectively known as ‘carotenoids’.

What are Carotenoids?

Carotenoids are a family of naturally occurring red, orange and yellow pigments found in fruits and vegetables. Although these carotenoids all share the same fundamental molecular structure and chemical properties, small variations in chemical structure do lead to differing physical properties such as colour and whether the compound is fat or water-soluble. Over 700 carotenoids have been identified so far, of which 50 appear to be absorbed by and metabolised by the human body.

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Why do we need carotenoids?

Carotenoids such as alpha-carotene and beta-carotene and beta-crptoxanthin can be metabolised into vitamin A, which is essential for a number of functions, such as eyesight and for the health and maintenance of epithelial tissues, such as the lining of the digestive tract, the lungs, the urinary tract, the skin and the bladder.

However, more recent research indicates that carotenoids in the diet offer other benefits, the most important of which is their ability to combat naturally occurring but highly damaging free radicals in the body, thought to be the root cause of aging and dangerous diseases such as cancer.

What levels of carotenoids are in my food?

* = boiled All figures in micrograms per 100 grams

How much do we need?

Although nutritionists recommend that our diets contain five portions a day of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidant phytochemicals such as carotenoids, there are currently no specific reference nutrient intakes (RNI’s).

Where can I find carotenoids?

Carotenoids are widely distributed in fruits and vegetables – especially dark green, red, orange and yellow coloured produce. However, different forms of carotenoids are not distributed evenly. The best sources of some of the most important carotenoids are as follows:

Beta-carotene: mango, cantaloupe, carrots, pumpkin, papaya, peaches, prunes, sweet potato, carrots, cabbage, lima beans, green beans, broccoli, kiwi, peas, spinach, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, honeydew melon and oranges

carotenoid_2

Alpha-carotone: sweet potatoes, apricots, pumpkin, green beans, lima beans, brocholi, cabbage, kale, kiwi, peas, spinach, prunes, papaya, squash and apricots

Lycopene: mango, papaya, oranges, kiwi, peaches, butternut squash, peas, lima beans, green beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, prunes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and honeydew melon

Zexanthin: oranges, apricots, prunes, papaya, pumpkin, mango, kale, kiwi, lettuce, honeydew melon and yellow corn

Beta-cryptoxanthin: oranges, mango, papaya, cantaloupe, peaches and prunes

What happens if I don’t get enough carotenoids?

Because carotenoids aren’t essential for day-to-day metabolism, there are no health problems associated with short-term low intakes. However, nutritionists now believe that health problems associated with low consumption over the longer-term lead to increased free radical damage within cells, which increases the risk of degenerative diseases, such as heart disease and cancer as well as accelerated signs of aging.

Who should take most care to regulate carotenoid intake?

Anyone whose diet contains less than the five recommended portions of fresh fruit and vegetables is unlikely to be consuming sufficient amounts of carotenoids.

Can I get too much dietary carotenoids?

There is no evidence that even very high levels of carotenoids can cause any harm. However, those who take supplements containing beta-carotene should beware – some studies have linked high supplement levels for extended periods with a slightly increased risk of lunge cancer.

This may be because supplemental beta-carotene disturbs the natural balance of carotenoids in the body, which normally work together as a team. The UK Food Standards Agency recommends a maximum supplemental intake for betacarotene of 7mgs per day.

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