Are You Getting Enough Alpha-Carotene in Your Diet?

This lesser-known relative of beta-carotene may have a longevity boosting benefit.

Roasted pumpkin soup with balsamic and pumpkin seeds on wooden background, close up

Updated on July 12, 2022.

If there was one amazing nutrient that could help add years to your life, you'd be sure to get plenty of it, wouldn't you? 

If this sounds appealing to you, it makes sense to eat more squash along with any other orange and green vegetables you can get your hands on. These richly hued vegetables get their color from carotenoids, plant pigments that are also powerful antioxidants. Alpha-carotene is one such carotenoid that is linked to lowering the risk of death from just about any cause. 

What is alpha-carotene?

You may be familiar with beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A found in colorful fruits and veggies. Like its nutritional cousin, alpha-carotene is found in many of the same foods, including yellow, orange, and dark green vegetables like winter squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, peas, broccoli, and kale.  

Alpha-carotene works as part of your body’s antioxidant defense system, neutralizing free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells and, in turn, contribute to illness and aging. Your body naturally produces free radicals with wear and tear, but external factors like smoking and radiation can accelerate their production. If too many free radicals in your body run unchecked by antioxidants, a slew of health problems may develop, ranging from cardiovascular disease and cancer to cataracts and asthma.  

Alpha-carotene is technically known as a provitamin A carotenoid. In other words, once eaten, it’s converted to vitamin A in the body as it’s metabolized in different tissues like the small intestine and liver.  

Vitamin A benefits the body in a variety of ways. It’s essential for normal growth and development, a properly functioning immune system, and healthy vision. Researchers also think that alpha-carotene may be even mightier than beta-carotene when it comes to slowing and stopping the growth of certain types of cancer cells.  

Cancer-fighting power

One influential 14-year study published in 2011 in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that people with the highest blood levels of alpha-carotene enjoyed a 39 percent lower risk of dying from any cause, including heart disease and cancer.  

Despite the similarities between alpha- and beta-carotene—and beta-carotene’s disease-fighting prowess—research suggests that alpha-carotene is more efficient at preventing the development of cancer in the lungs and liver, preventing skin tumors, and may be as much as 10 times more effective at stopping the spread of neuroblastomas, a type of cancer that develops in nerve cells.  

Working alpha-carotene into your diet

Alpha-carotene offers a variety of benefits to the body, but here’s the rub: Nutritional supplements don't usually contain it. What's more, studies haven't found that carotenoid supplements like beta-carotene are very effective disease fighters.  

That makes it key to meet your carotene needs—alpha and beta—with a vegetable-filled diet. It’s also not just what you’re eating that’s important, but how you’re eating it, as well. Studies show that the bioavailability of alpha-carotene—how much of it you can actually absorb from what you eat—increases based on how the plants are processed before eating.  

How does food prep optimize your alpha-carotene intake? 

Chopping and heating up plants breaks down tissues that hold the nutrients we want to absorb. You can also get more bang for your buck by adding a dressing containing an oil such as soybean or olive oil to your salad or cooked veggie. Research shows that oil enhances the quantity of plant nutrients you’re able to absorb.  

There is too much of a good thing when it comes to oil, however, and researchers thus far suggest limiting yourself to the U.S. daily dietary recommendation of two tablespoons per serving, due to the high calorie content.  

So, as you shop for produce, be sure to pick up a rainbow of colors—and add alpha-carotene to your health-boosting menu.

Article sources open article sources

Oregon State University. Linus Pauling Institute. Micronutrient Information Center. α-Carotene, β-Carotene, β-Cryptoxanthin, Lycopene, Lutein, and Zeaxanthin. Reviewed in August 2016.
Fujii R, Tsuboi Y, Maeda K, Ishihara Y, Suzuki K. Analysis of Repeated Measurements of Serum Carotenoid Levels and All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality in Japan. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(6):e2113369.
Li C, Ford ES, Zhao G, Balluz LS, Giles WH, Liu S. Serum α-Carotene Concentrations and Risk of Death Among US Adults: The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Follow-up Study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(6):507–515.
D'Ambrosio DN, Clugston RD, Blaner WS. Vitamin A metabolism: an update. Nutrients. 2011 Jan;3(1):63-103.
Jayedi A, Rashidy-Pour A, Parohan M, Zargar MS, Shab-Bidar S. Dietary Antioxidants, Circulating Antioxidant Concentrations, Total Antioxidant Capacity, and Risk of All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Observational Studies. Adv Nutr. 2018;9(6):701-716.
Phaniendra A, Jestadi DB, Periyasamy L. Free radicals: properties, sources, targets, and their implication in various diseases. Indian J Clin Biochem. 2015 Jan;30(1):11-26.
Wendy S White, Yang Zhou, Agatha Crane, Philip Dixon, Frits Quadt, Leonard M Flendrig, Modeling the dose effects of soybean oil in salad dressing on carotenoid and fat-soluble vitamin bioavailability in salad vegetables, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 106, Issue 4, October 2017, Pages 1041–1051.

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