What is Beta-carotene?
Beta-carotene is a compound found in the blood. It is one of a group of red, yellow, and orange pigments called carotenoids. It is derived from the food that we eat, particularly carrots, and hence the name. Some of the other foods rich in beta-carotene are onions, squash, peas etc. It is important because on oxidation it converts to vitamin A, a very essential vitamin. Beta-carotene is important also because of its antioxidant and anticancer properties.
Vitamin A is necessary for the development of the embryo in pregnant women and proper growth and eyesight in children and adults. However, it is also toxic at high levels.
Note that any carotenoid with a molecular structure similar to that of retinol (vitamin A) can lead to the formation of vitamin A on oxidation. However, beta-carotene presents with the highest vitamin A-forming activity of all carotenoids, and therefore its importance in this regard.
Benefits of beta-carotene
Slows down cognitive impairment
An estimated 5.3 million or 1.6% of Americans of all ages had Alzheimer’s disease in 2015. Without breakthroughs in prevention or treatment, it is estimated that the number may even triple by 2050. This means that there is an urgency for alternative methods of treatment that may prove more effective than those existing. The investigation into vitamins was done with a purpose of using it to supplement standard treatment for this disease.
A study was conducted in 16 human participants with Alzheimer’s disease, low memory, dementia, Parkinson’s disease etc. It was observed that beta-carotene supplementation helped bring sizeable improvement in the condition of three participants, with one participant’s medication also reduced.
Let us now consider another study that was conducted in a much larger sample of 4000 people over a period of 18 years. It was observed that beta-carotene supplementation helped slow down the cognitive decline. This means that the patients had more time before they needed caregivers or an increase in medication.
A study was conducted in Japan on 1634 elderly individuals aged 65 and older to understand if vitamin intake had an association with depression. The study concluded that both vitamin C and Beta-carotene helped to reduce depressive symptoms among elderly people living in community dwellings in Japan.
Reduces the risk of breast cancer
A study has proven that higher circulating levels of carotenoids like beta-carotene can help reduce the risk of breast cancer in women. The breast cell lines were treated with a combination of beta-carotene and lycopene for 48 hours and 96 hours, respectively. There was a marked improvement with time. The combination of the two compounds helped prevent the proliferation of cancer cells and interfered with their growth. In some cases, it even leads to apoptosis (death of cancer cells). It was also observed that beta-carotene obtained from natural sources had stronger anticancer properties as opposed to that which was synthetically prepared.
Reduces the risk of leukemia
When monocytic leukemia and myeloid leukemia were treated with beta-carotene (even at lower concentrations), the anti-oxidant properties were more evident. In a study, it was observed that Beta-carotene is able to arrest the proliferation and growth of certain leukemia cells at a concentration of 20 micrometer in 24 hours. The death of cancer cells (apoptosis) increases with increasing concentration of beta-carotene. However, these reported benefits were in the earlier stages of the growth of cancer.
Reduces the risk of liver cancer and chronic liver disease
Another study observed that men with higher serum beta-carotene and retinol levels had a lower risk of developing liver cancer and dying of chronic liver disease. Though these results may suggest that a diet high in micronutrients may help protect against cancer, it may be another aspect of lifestyle, diet, or health. In addition, the authors of the study do not recommend any supplements that are rich in beta-carotene or retinol as having any beneficial effect.
Reduces the photosensitivity of skin
Erythropoietic protoporphyria is a photosensitive disorder. Taking enough of beta-carotene can help reduce the photosensitivity of those with this disorder. It is reported to work well for other photosensitive disorders as well.
Beta-carotene may also help to prevent the effects of phototoxic drugs. There is evidence also that beta-carotene supplementation may be useful for skin care as well. It is used as a bioactive ingredient of creams, which protects skin lesions against oxidation and exposure to UV radiation.
Reduces macular degeneration
Macular degeneration as an age-related disorder can lead to a gradual loss of vision. This loss of vision can be prevented by a combination of vitamin E, C, zinc, copper and beta-carotene. It is in fact believed that it can reduce the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration by about 25%. However, because the same study also included smokers, beta-carotene was removed, as it is known to increase the risk of lung cancer in those who smoke.
Reduces the risk of fracture
A study was conducted on elderly men and women over a period of 15 years where they were supplemented with lycopene and beta-carotene. The results obtained supported the supplementation of vitamins to reduce the risk of bone fracture. By reducing the oxidative stress on bones, beta-carotene might help reduce the risk of facture in cases of injury or external trauma. Beta-carotene is capable of this by scavenging reactive free radicals of oxygen in the body. The oxidative stress might actually lead to bone resorption, which is inhibited in the above process by beta-carotene.
Another bad news for smokers
In a study conducted by ATBC in 1994, it was observed that those who smoked tobacco and took beta-carotene supplements were at a higher risk of lung cancer than others were. The family of enzymes called GSTs present in the body is responsible for neutralizing the carcinogenic substances in tobacco. Beta-carotene inhibits the activity of GST, thereby allowing the carcinogen to cause lung cancer. At the time, there was increasing faith in antioxidant supplementation leading to great benefits. The report by ATBC evoked concern in the hearts of those who had advocated for vitamin supplementation as a treatment method.
Foods containing beta-carotene
The beneficial carotenoid is found in good amounts in vegetables that have a red, yellow, or orange skin. This does not mean that it is not present in other vegetables though. In fact, quite a few leafy greens and other vegetables also contain beta-carotene. You could include them in your diet as well.
Now remember that vitamin A is soluble in fats, not in water. This means that it is always better to include some fats in your diet as well to enable better absorption of vitamin A. Some of the sources of vitamin A are:
Herbs and spices such as sage, cilantro, parsley, marjoram, paprika, and chili also contain good amount of beta-carotene.
How much Vitamin A must you take?
There are still no established guidelines for taking beta-carotene. The general guidelines for taking beta-carotene supplements for the different age groups are as follows:
- 6-15 mg of beta-carotene daily for adults
- 3-6 mg of beta-carotene daily for children
Vitamin A intake also depends on your medical history and what medications you are currently taking. For different medical conditions, vitamin A requirements will be different.
If you are watchful, you can satisfy most of your vitamin A requirements by managing your diet effectively and including the foods that are rich in vitamin A.
Supplementation is not necessary to ensure you get the desired quantity of the vitamin in question. In 3.5 ounces of carrots, there is an about 8 mg of beta-carotene This would help to satisfy 55% of a man’s daily requirement of vitamin A and 70% of the daily requirement of vitamin A for women. Now you can easily figure out how much you would require. Green leafy vegetables like spinach are equally rich in beta-carotene, with about 60 grams of spinach providing 7 mg of beta-carotene. Even a starchy vegetable like sweet potato has a bit of beta-carotene as well. In about 100 gm of sweet potato, there is about 4 mg of beta-carotene.
Are higher doses of beta-carotene unsafe?
For a long time, there was a view that antioxidants are all equally useful and that probably their dosing did not matter. However, a recent review of several studies on antioxidants has proven otherwise. It is not advisable to take large doses of beta-carotene, just as it is unwise to take large doses of any other vitamin. Vitamin E, for instance, is seen as a wholesome vitamin, but in larger doses, it can have the same inhibitory effect on the GST family of enzymes mentioned earlier. This, in turn, can lead to cancer.
Because different antioxidants have different molecular structures, it says that it is also important to pick the right one. This will ensure that it is beneficial for a particular condition that would need chemical compounds of a particular molecular structure to treat it.
The review also concluded that there is strong evidence for beta-carotene supplementation inducing lung cancer in smokers already taking other multivitamins. The same review also concluded that the risk of cancer was relatively less in smokers who got their beta-carotene through food and not through supplements.
Therefore, taking beta-carotene supplements is not recommended for those who smoke. However, they may take foods that are rich in beta-carotene without having to worry about the risk of lung cancer. Including foods that are rich in beta-carotene has proven to be beneficial not only in reducing the incidence of cancer but also that of heart disease.
Industrial uses of beta-carotene
The use of beta-carotene in food is not just because of its useful bioactivity (that of oxidation to vitamin A) but also due to its distinctive color. Because of the distinctive color of beta-carotene, it is used as an additive in the food industry. It is used as an orange-red pigment in several products like non-alcoholic beverages, cheese, pastry, ice cream etc.
It is used in the pharmaceutical industry to add color to tablets and again in cosmetic industry where it is added to creams as a bioactive ingredient.
How useful is beta-carotene really?
Beta-carotene is one of the most essential micronutrients. The best way to ensure you are getting enough of it is by including fruits and vegetables in your diet that are rich in beta-carotene.
There are specific ways by which you can increase your daily intake of vitamin A. To know more, you could consult a doctor. If you have any medical conditions, the doctor will also recommend supplements to treat them. If you do not have any medical conditions that would need the use of supplements, why should you take them? Especially when it is possible to obtain the same nutrients from other fruits and vegetables.
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