What Is Beta Carotene?

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Smal bowl of shredded carrots.
Smal bowl of shredded carrots. (Image: pheigin/iStock/Getty Images)

If you’ve ever wanted to know what makes carrots and sweet potatoes orange, you can thank beta carotene. This carotenoid not only gives yellow and orange fruits and vegetables their rich color, it’s also an antioxidant that helps protect your body from chronic diseases. Your body also turns beta carotene into vitamin A, which you need for eye and skin health and proper immune function.

Discovering Carotenoids

Carotenoids are yellow, orange and red pigments made by plants. Beta carotene is one of the most common carotenoids in the North American diet, along with alpha carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. It was also one of the first carotenoids to be measured in food and in the blood. Diets high in carotenoids are associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Provitamin A Carotenoids

Specifically, beta carotene is classified as a provitamin A carotenoid because your body can convert it into vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for good eye health. It also helps keep your skin healthy and your immune system strong. In large amounts, vitamin A can be toxic, but since your body only produces as much vitamin A from beta carotene as it needs, there is no risk of toxicity from consuming large amounts of beta carotene.

Beta Carotene as an Antioxidant

Beta carotene is also categorized as an antioxidant. Antioxidants help protect the body from free radicals – unstable molecules that can damage the cells. Over time, this damage, called oxidation, can lead to heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration or other neurological disorders. People who eat four or more servings of fruits and vegetables containing beta carotene each day have a reduced risk of developing heart disease and cancer.

Food Sources

You can easily pick out beta-carotene-rich foods by looking for those with a deep orange hue, such as carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and cantaloupe. Dark leafy greens, like spinach, collard greens, turnip greens and dandelion greens, are also an excellent source of the carotenoid.

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