6 Crucial Carotenoids

Brighten up your plate

6 Crucial Carotenoids

The colourful plant compounds, carotenoids, can strengthen your body and boost your immune system. Carotenoids are a large family of fat-soluble pigments found most often in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables that hold red, orange, yellow, or some dark green pigments.

These powerful antioxidants lessen oxidative damage in our cells. This allows for body cells to live longer and may improve our overall health and longevity. Free radicals, which have been linked to the initiation and spread of cancer, damage the body’s DNA and cell membranes. Naturally produced in the body, free radicals are also created from exposure to sunlight, the digestion of cooked or fried food, physical activity, and smoking.

In order for the body to protect against free radicals and cancer, antioxidants, such as those from carotenoid-rich foods, must be consumed to support a healthy immune system.

Some carotenoids are also known to provide vitamin A. There are about 50 out of 600 carotenoids that the liver and intestine can convert into retinol, which is the active form of vitamin A the body is able to use. These are commonly referred to as provitamin A compounds.

Carotenoid guide

Here are six of the more powerful and health-enhancing carotenoids that you can easily add to your dinner table.

Lycopene

Lycopene is the bright red carotenoid pigment, known to be one of the most potent antioxidants. Some research studies suggest that men who eat tomato-based products regularly are less likely to develop prostrate cancer than their counterparts.

Researchers advise that heating tomato sauce and adding an oil, such as extra-virgin olive oil, changes the shape of lycopene molecules, allowing easier digestion and maximum bioavailability.

Lycopene may also protect against heart disease by inhibiting free-radical damage to LDL (bad) cholesterol, and it may possibly boost sperm concentration in infertile men.

Lutein

Lutein is the yellow carotenoid pigment, most often linked to optimal vision and skin health. Lutein is mainly concentrated in the peripheral part of the retina and has been shown to lessen macular degeneration or age-related vision loss due to damage to the retina. It differs from the carotenoid zeaxanthin by protecting the skin against UV damage, and also by increasing skin hydration and elasticity.

Zeaxanthin

Zeaxanthin is in many of the same food sources as lutein and is strongly linked to eye health too. It is concentrated in the central macula of the retina and has been shown to lessen the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. A powerful antioxidant, zeaxanthin filters out UV light to protect the eyes against sun damage.

Astaxanthin

This bright red pigment is produced by microscopic small plants such as algae. What makes this antioxidant unique is how it gets into the human food chain. Many marine animals eat astaxanthin-rich algae, which becomes concentrated in their shells and flesh to give them their red colour. This helps explain how salmon or shrimp can vary in colour intensity.

Astaxanthin has shown to enhance the immune system by increasing the number of antibody-producing cells. New attention has been drawn to this carotenoid as a recent study published in Atherosclerosis (April 2010) revealed that taking an astaxanthin supplement for 12 weeks resulted in a significant reduction in triglyceride levels and a significant increase in HDL cholesterol—the good one!

Alpha and beta carotene

Alpha and beta carotene are rich in a red-orange pigment that is abundant in produce such as carrots. They are classified as provitamin A compounds, as they convert retinol into the active form of vitamin A used by the body.

Beta carotene is the more powerful of the two, as alpha carotene has one-half the vitamin A activity of beta. Not only do they provide your body with vitamin A, but they also protect cells from free radicals, enhance the immune system, and support a healthy reproductive system.

Research has demonstrated that beta carotene plays a role in skin protection as it reduces the redness of UV-induced skin and improves melasma, a dark skin discolouration that may occur on the face of pregnant women, or women on oral or patch contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy.

Intake of too much beta carotene may result in a condition called carotenodermia, which is a yellow-orange discolouration of the skin. It is usually harmless and is relieved when beta carotene intake returns to normal.

Take with a healthy fat

All of these carotenoids can be obtained through numerous food sources. Keep in mind that due to their fat-soluble molecular makeup, carotenoids need to be ingested with a healthy fat for optimal absorption in the digestive tract. Adding extra-virgin olive oil or nuts to your meal can do the trick, and if you experience malabsorption issues, a full-spectrum enzyme may be required.

If you smoke or drink on a regular basis and are considering taking a supplement such as beta carotene, consult your health care practitioner. Studies have indicated that lung cancer and heart disease may be higher in these population groups if beta carotene intake exceeds 20 to 30 mg per day. 

Food sources

Carotenoids are flavourful bursts of colour you can easily add to any dinner plate.

Carotenoid Food
lycopene tomato paste or sauce, tomato juice, watermelon, guava, pink grapefruit, papaya, red bell peppers
lutein peaches, mango, acorn squash, oranges, prunes
zeaxanthin and lutein spinach, kale, broccoli, zucchini, garden peas, collard greens, egg yolks, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kiwi, honeydew
astaxanthin salmon, trout, krill, shrimp, crayfish
alpha and beta carotene carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, cilantro, Swiss chard, spinach, cantaloupe

Supplement sources

  • Lycopene—oil-based tomato extracts
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin—marigold flowers
  • Astaxanthin—microalgae extract
  • Alpha and beta carotene—Dunaliella algae and palm oil

Note: consult your health care practitioner to determine the best dosage for you.