What is Beta-Carotene?
If you ever wondered why carrots are supposed to be so good for your eye health, the answer is beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is what gives carrots and other fruits and vegetables their orange color.
Beta-Carotene in the Diet
There are many other great-tasting foods besides carrots that contain beta-carotene. Besides the orange and reddish orange foods like sweet potatoes, red pepper, winter squash and others, beta-carotene is also found in dark, green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
Because beta-carotene is not a vitamin but a precursor to one (see below), there is no dietary recommendation in either the US or the EU.
Beta-Carotene and Your Eyes
Beta-carotene is a form of vitamin A called provitamin A that is only found in plants. Vitamin A contributes to the maintenance of normal vision. It does so by protecting the surface of the cornea, helping vision in dim light and supporting immune function. Beta-carotene also acts as an antioxidant.
Beta-Carotene and Skin Health
Studies have shown that beta-carotene is protective against the harmful effects of the sun. Specifically, beta-carotene seems to reduce the redness that occurs with sun exposure.1 Beta-carotene, however, may work best in concert with other nutrients: several studies have shown that people taking supplements using a combination of beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene and other nutrients experienced less erythema–the redness and swelling associated with sunburn–after exposure to UV light.2
Beta-Carotene and Brain Health
Beta-carotene benefits for the brain have been well-researched. In one well-known study, known as the Physician’s Health Study, subjects treated for 18 years with beta-carotene supplements had significantly higher scores on cognitive tests than those who took a placebo. Another study demonstrated that, while beta-carotene supplementation did not have an effect on cognitive benefits in the short term, long-term supplementation may be beneficial.3 This could be particularly important for people who have a greater genetic chance of cognitive decline, as evidenced by the APOE 4 gene.4
1 Nutrients. 2010; 2(8): 903–928
2 Am J Clin Nutr 2001;73:853-64
3 Arch Intern Med. 2007 Nov 12;167(20):2184-90
4 J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2006 Jun;61(6):616-20