Parents often have tried to persuade children to eat carrots by saying “they’re good for your eyesight.” What they were referring to is the beta carotene. They were right. Beta carotene helps with eye health, but that’s not all it does. Beta carotene helps maintain moist mucuous membranes (the lining of your eyelids, ears, nose, throat, stomach, and intestines) and a strong immune system.
“It also has been found to prevent cognitive decline in aging, to improve the health of skin, and to help lungs function properly,” says Rachel Lustgarten, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Weill Cornell Medicine.
What Is Beta Carotene?
Beta carotene is a carotenoid—a type of phytonutrient—which helps plants absorb light for photosynthesis. You can thank carotenoids for the color of a ripe, juicy tomato or the rich beauty of autumn leaves.
Beta carotene converts to vitamin A (retinol) when it reaches the bloodstream. Like the leaves, it is responsible for giving fruits and vegetables their red, orange, and yellow hues. Vitamin A also supports cell growth and has been known to protect against some cancers. The daily recommendation for vitamin A consumption is 700 micrograms (or 70 milligrams [mg]) for women over 50 years of age.
Beta carotene also is an antioxidant. Antioxidants neutralize unstable molecules in the body called free radicals. Free radicals are responsible for oxidative stress, which plays a role in inflammation, immune flare-ups, and chronic diseases. When you reduce oxidative stress, you are helping to protect your body against diseases such as dementia, heart disease, and macular degeneration. Diets rich in antioxidants, including beta carotene, have been linked with reductions in risk of breast cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Antioxidants also help protect the skin against harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.
Where Can You Find Beta Carotene?
A single medium carrot contains about 7,051 international units, the equivalent of about 2.1 mg, or triple the daily vitamin A requirement. One cup of cooked butternut squash provides five times the recommended daily value of beta carotene.
“Most people are able to get adequate amounts of beta carotene through their daily diet,” says Lustgarten. “As a result, supplementation of beta carotene is not needed.”
In addition to carrots of all colors (orange, purple, yellow, red, and white), you also can find beta carotene in sweet potatoes, red and yellow bell peppers, winter squash (including pumpkin), tomatoes, dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, green beans, and peas, and fruits such as apricots, cantaloupe, and mangos. The herbs fennel and turmeric also contain beta carotene, and savoy cabbage, a winter plant, contains more beta carotene than red cabbage, which is available year-round.