A Primer on Carotenoids and Health

The most well-known carotenoid is beta-carotene, a naturally-occurring compound that gives carrots their orange color. Your body can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A. But beta-carotene is essentially inactive as a vitamin until it is converted, so it is a way for the body to store vitamin A without a vitamin A overdose. Another use for beta-carotene is as an anti-oxidant, which deactivates harmful free radicals in the body. High amounts of beta-carotene from food are associated with reduced risk of a number of diseases.

However, beta-carotene from supplements is not as useful. A well-known study in the 1980′s and 90′s found that beta-carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer and all-cause mortality in smokers. [Summary of the study is here.] But other studies have found a decrease in risk of lung cancer and other diseases with consumption of foods high in beta-carotene. So it is better to get your beta-carotene from food than supplements.

A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high intake of foods rich in beta-carotene reduced the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) by 26%.

Foods high in beta-carotene: carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, but not iceberg lettuce.

High intake of foods rich in a related compound, alpha-carotene, has been found to be even more effective in reducing risk of disease. A 2011 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people with the highest levels of alpha-carotene had a 43% lower risk of death from any/all cancers combined. The same study also found that eating foods high in alpha-carotene reduced all-cause mortality (overall risk of premature death) by 39% and death from cardiovascular disease by 29%.

Foods high in alpha-carotene: carrots, pumpkin, butternut squash, Hubbard squash.

Lycopene is also a carotenoid. Eating foods high in lycopene is also associated with a reduced risk of various diseases.

A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high consumption of lycopene-rich foods (especially cooked tomato foods) reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 35%.

A 2005 study published in Nutrition and Cancer found that high consumption of foods rich in beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lycopene, and lutein (another carotenoid) each reduced the risk of prostate cancer by 33 to 47%.

Foods high in lycopene: tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato juice, fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, guava, papaya.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are related carotenoids, necessary for a healthy retina in the eye. These carotenoids also reduce risk of various diseases. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that high intake of foods rich in alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin reduced risk of breast cancer by 26 to 36%. A 2000 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high intake of foods rich in lutein may decrease the risk of colon cancer. Lutein together with zeaxanthin might also decrease the risk of prostate cancer.

Foods high in lutein: spinach, kale, cilantro, romaine lettuce, pistachio nuts, broccoli, egg yolks, corn.
Foods high in zeaxanthin: orange bell peppers, egg yolks, yellow corn, goji berries.

Beta-cryptoxanthin is another carotenoid that promotes good health. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a moderate intake of foods rich in beta-cryptoxanthin reduced all-cause mortality by 25%. High consumption was not necessary.

Foods high in beta-cryptoxanthin: tangerines, mandarin oranges, butternut squash, red bell peppers, oranges.

Other studies looked at total carotenoid intake from food, and found similar benefits. All six of these nutrients — alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin — support good health and reduce the risk of various diseases and premature death.

Carotenoids survive cooking, so you don’t have to eat these vegetables raw to obtain the benefits. Many of these food are easy to grow in a survival garden, including: butternut squash, red or orange bell peppers, yellow corn, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkin, kale, romaine lettuce, red or green leaf lettuce, and sweet potatoes.

Survive with good health.

— Thoreau

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