Beneficial or Dangerous for Your Health?
There’s a growing body of literature that indicates the beneficial effects of beta-carotene and other carotenoids on chronic diseases in humans. Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid that’s found in plants. It’s known as a provitamin A carotenoid because it needs to be converted to active vitamin A by the body.
Researchers agree that beta-carotene found in fruits and vegetables is beneficial to your health. These specific vitamins A foods can help to boost your immune system, protect your skin and eyes, and fight life-threatening conditions like heart disease and cancer. However, the studies involving beta-carotene supplements have mixed results, leaving researchers cautious about recommending supplements for the treatment of health concerns. It turns out, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to your health, so you need to be aware of the proper ways to consume this carotenoid.
What Is Beta-Carotene?
Beta-carotene is a pigment found in plants that give yellow and orange fruits and vegetables their color. It’s converted in the body to vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant that plays a critical role in maintaining healthy vision, skin and neurological function.
Vitamin A is found in two primary forms: active vitamin A and beta-carotene. Active vitamin A is called retinol, and it comes from animal-derived foods. This pre-formed vitamin A can be used directly by the body without needing to convert the vitamin first. Provitamin A carotenoids are different because they need to be converted to retinol by the body after they’re ingested. Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid that’s found primarily in plants; it needs to be converted to active vitamin A before it can be utilized by the body. (1)
There’s plenty of evidence that eating high-antioxidant foods that contain beta-carotene is good for your health and may help prevent serious conditions. However, there’s mixed research about the use of beta-carotene supplements. In fact, some studies even suggest that supplementation may increase your risk of serious health conditions like cancer and heart disease. The important message here is that there are benefits to getting vitamins in food that don’t necessarily occur in supplement form.
6 Beta-Carotene Benefits
1. Has Powerful Antioxidant Activity
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids have antioxidant activities and are valued for their ability to prevent chronic disease. They protect the body from damaging free radicals, which are the primary cause of aging and degeneration.
Studies have shown an inverse relationship between the presence of various cancers and dietary carotenoids or blood carotenoid levels. However, it appears that carotenoids can promote health when taken at dietary levels but may have adverse effects when taken in high doses by people who smoke or who have been exposed to asbestos. Researchers are still determining the proper doses of carotenoids to be beneficial and not dangerous. (2)
Nonetheless, it’s clear that consuming foods containing beta-carotene and other antioxidants helps lower levels of inflammation and fight oxidative stress within the body.
2. Supports Healthy Pregnancy
The American Pediatrics Association cites vitamin A as one of the most critical vitamins during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Vitamin A plays an important role in the healthy development of the fetus and the newborn, with lung development and maturation being particularly important. It’s also needed for infants and toddlers to build a strong immune system.
According to research published in the European Journal of Nutrition, there should be a 40 percent increase in vitamin A intake for pregnant women and a 90 percent increase for breastfeeding women. It’s safest to get beta-carotene from the foods you eat, so women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consume more yellow and orange fruits and vegetables. If you do need a supplement to get enough this carotenoid, use it under the supervision of your healthcare provider. (3)
3. Protects the Skin
Beta-carotene metabolism takes place in a wide variety of organs, including the skin. Many studies have found that it helps prevent the formation of UV-induced erythema, or skin irritation and redness. Although it can’t be compared to the efficacy of sunscreen, there’s evidence that beta-carotene can protect the skin against sunburn by increasing the basal defense against skin damage caused by UV light. (4)
4. Protects Your Eyes
Beta-carotene and other antioxidants may help delay the progression of age-related macular degeneration, which causes vision changes that are sometimes so severe that irreversible legal blindness can occur. Antioxidants are effective in slowing down the progression of macular degeneration symptoms because they can help prevent oxidative stress, which plays a significant role in the degeneration of cells and nerves in the retina/macula.
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study established that a combination of dietary antioxidants, including zinc, beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E, effectively slowed the progression of macular degeneration. (5)
5. Treats Oral Leukoplakia
A study conducted at the University of Arizona confirmed the activity of beta-carotene in patients with oral leukoplakia, which is highlighted by thickened, white patches that form on your gums and inside your cheeks. Most leukoplakia patches are benign, but some may be early signs of cancer. Fifty patients were given 60 milligrams of beta-carotene a day for six months, and then participants were chosen to either continue treatment or use placebo therapy for 12 additional months. The results showed that 52 percent (26 patients) of the participants had a clinical response to treatment, and 23 of the 26 patients who responded positively completed the second, randomized phase of the study. (6)
Another older study, published in 1990, had similar results: 71 percent of patients in the treatment group had major responses to 30 milligrams of beta-carotene per day. Researchers concluded that because of its lack of toxicity, it serves as an excellent candidate as a preventive agent for oral cancer. (7)
6. Improves Respiratory Health
Research published in the European Respiratory Journal suggests that eating fruits with beta-carotene can improve respiratory and pulmonary function. In comparison with eating fruit rarely or never, people who ate fruit at least once a day had reduced respiratory symptoms, such as phlegm production, shortness of breath and wheezing. Fruits of any kind help to fight respiratory conditions, including mango, papaya, and cantaloupe. (8)
Mixed Research on Beta-Carotene
Beta-Carotene and Lung Cancer
There have been studies suggesting that lung cancer, particularly in smokers, and cardiovascular disease may actually be enhanced by supplemental beta-carotene. The results on this issue are mixed, but ultimately, researchers aren’t sure if there may be interactions between different carotenoids that are used together for treatment, or if beta-carotene interacts with other phytonutrients. (9)
A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Cancer supports findings of an increased risk of lung and stomach cancers in smokers and asbestos workers who supplemented with 20 to 30 milligrams of beta-carotene per day. For this reason, researchers believe that beta-carotene supplements should not be recommended for primary cancer prevention. (10)
However, according to a study conducted at Yale University School of Medicine in 2002, high fruit and vegetable consumption, particularly a diet rich in carotenoids, reduced the risk of lung cancer. (11)
The numerous studies on the subject do agree that people who smoke or drink heavily should not take beta-carotene supplements unless under their doctors’ supervision.
Beta-Carotene and Heart Disease
Researchers at Cleveland Clinic conducted a meta-analysis, combining the results of eight studies on the effects of beta-carotene at doses ranging from 15 to 50 milligrams. After investigating data from over 130,000 patients, researchers found that supplementation led to a small but significant increase in cardiovascular death.
Even though the supplements did not prove beneficial in avoiding heart problems, studies show that antioxidant foods should still be recommended. According to researchers at Cleveland Clinic, “There are benefits to getting vitamins in food that don’t necessarily occur in supplement form.” For instance, antioxidant foods that contain beta-carotene may also include nutrients like flavonoids and lycopene, which aren’t typically included in standard vitamin supplements. (12)
Beta-Carotene Foods and Supplements
Numerous observational studies have found that people who ingest more carotenoids in their diets have a reduced risk of several chronic diseases. The richest sources of beta-carotene are yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, plus leafy green vegetables (the chlorophyll in leafy greens hides the yellow-orange pigment). In general, the brighter and more intense the color, the more beta-carotene is present in that food.
The American Heart Association recommends getting enough beta-carotene from a diet high in fruits and vegetables, rather than through supplements. To get about six to eight milligrams a day, eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, especially these foods: (13)
- Carrot juice — 1 cup: 22 milligrams
- Pumpkin — 1 cup: 17 milligrams
- Spinach — 1 cup (cooked): 13.8 milligrams
- Carrots — 1 cup (cooked): 13 milligrams
- Sweet potato — 1 medium sweet potato: 13 milligrams
- Collard greens — 1 cup (cooked): 11.6 milligrams
- Kale — 1 cup (cooked): 11.5 milligrams
- Turnip greens — 1 cup (cooked): 10.6 milligrams
- Winter squash — 1 cup: 5.7 milligrams
- Dandelion greens — 1 cup (cooked): 4.1 milligrams
- Cantaloupe — 1 cup: 3.2 milligrams
- Apricot — 1 cup: 1.6 milligrams
- Mango — 1 cup: 0.7 milligrams
Beta-carotene is fat-soluble, so you need to eat fats in order for it to be absorbed properly. You can do this by cooking vegetables containing this carotenoid in coconut oil or olive oil, which also have numerous health benefits. You can also eat fruits with probiotic yogurt to be sure that it’s properly absorbed by the body. (14)
Although it’s ideal to get beta-carotene from the foods you eat, supplements are available in capsule and gel forms. Commercially available supplements typically contain between 1.5 and 15 milligrams of either synthetic or natural beta-carotene. There’s no recommended daily intake. Because of the mixed research concerning the dangers of beta-carotene supplementation, it’s only recommended for short-term use unless it’s used under the care of your doctor.
Precautions and Potential Side Effects
Beta-carotene is likely safe when it’s consumed in amounts found naturally in food. Supplements should be used short-term under the direction of your healthcare provider. Possible side effects from this carotenoid include a headache, burping, loose stools, bruising, joint pain and yellowing skin, although the discoloration eventually goes away.
People who smoke or drink heavily should avoid taking this carotenoid, as studies show that it causes an increased risk of cancer. People with a history of exposure to asbestos should also avoid using beta-carotene supplements because they may increase the risk of a liver disorder or heart disease.
Tell your doctor if you take beta-carotene supplements while taking cholesterol-lowing drugs, antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, orlistat or plant sterols. It may increase your risk of bleeding when it’s taken with drugs that also increase the risk of bleeding (like blood thinners).
Final Thoughts on Beta-Carotene
- Beta-carotene is a pigment found in plants that give yellow and orange fruits and vegetables their color.
- It’s a type of carotenoid. Provitamin A carotenoids are different because they need to be converted to retinol by the body after they’re ingested.
- Research shows that there are benefits to eating foods containing beta-carotene. This is due to its antioxidant activities and ability to protect the skin and eyes.
- There’s mixed research regarding beta-carotene supplementation and whether or not it increases your risk of cancer and heart disease. To be safe, get your dose of this carotenoid from eating yellow and orange fruits and vegetables.