Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits, especially carrots and colorful vegetables and it is this pigment that gives vegetables and fruits their rich colors.
The human body converts beta-carotene into Vitamin A (retinol) - Beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A. We need Vitamin A for healthy skin and mucous membranes, our immune system, and good eye health and vision.
Beta-carotene in itself is not an essential nutrient, but vitamin A is.
Beta-carotene from food is a safe source of vitamin A
In the body, beta-carotene converts into vitamin A (retinol. Taking big doses of vitamin A can be toxic, but your body only converts as much vitamin A from beta-carotene as it needs. That means beta-carotene is considered a safe source of vitamin A. However, too much beta-carotene can be dangerous for people who smoke. (Getting high amounts of either vitamin A or beta-carotene from food, not from supplements, is safe.)
Beta-carotene is an antioxidant
Beta-carotene, like all carotenoids, is an antioxidant. An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules; it protects the body from free radicals. Free radicals damage cells through oxidation. Eventually, the damage caused by free radicals can cause several chronic illnesses.
Several studies have shown that antioxidants through diet help people's immune systems, protect against free radicals, and lower the risk of developing cancer and heart diseases. Some studies have suggested that those who consume at least four daily servings of beta-carotene rich fruits and/or vegetables have a lower risk of developing cancer or heart disease.
Which foods are rich in beta-carotene?
The richest sources of beta-carotene are yellow, orange, and green leafy fruits and vegetables (such as carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, and winter squash, plums, kale, asparagus, apricots, pumpkin, etc ). In general, the more intense the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more beta-carotene it has.
If you follow a healthy diet rich in beta-carotene you do not need supplements. As mentioned above, supplements can lead to undesirable excesses in beta-carotene levels - this cannot occur if your source is from the food you eat.
Dosage / Recommended Intake
There is no Recommended Daily Allowance of beta-carotene. Some doctors may prescribe between 10,000 IU per day up to 83,000 IU. Try to get most of your daily dose from the foods you eat. Eating more fruits and vegetables will ensure you get enough beta-carotene, and will also give you the added benefits of other nutrients and antioxidants.
Eat 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day to get about 3 to 6 mg of beta-carotene.
Therapeutic use of Beta carotene
Studies that look at big groups of people suggest that those who eat 4 or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene may reduce their risk of developing heart disease or cancer. Other preliminary studies suggest that eating foods rich in beta-carotene reduces the risk of Sporadic ALS (Lou Gehrig Disease).
However, a few studies have found that people who take beta-carotene supplements may have a higher risk for conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Researchers think that may be because the total of all the nutrients you eat in a healthy, balanced diet gives more protection than just beta-carotene supplements alone.
So far, studies have not confirmed that beta-carotene supplements by themselves help prevent cancer. Eating foods rich in beta-carotene, along with other antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, seems to protect against some kinds of cancer. However, beta-carotene supplements may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer in people who smoke or drink heavily. Those people should not take beta-carotene, except under a doctor's supervision.
Beta-carotene reduces sun sensitivity for people with certain skin problems, but it does not protect against sunburn
My article in Hindi in a Hindi news daily ( Hindustan) Delhi edition on Beta Carotene