What is beta-carotene?

Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid found in many fruits and vegetables. You don't need beta carotene to survive, though it may help fight off certain diseases. Also, your body can convert it to vitamin A, which you do need.

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Plant food sources do not contain preformed vitamin A, but some do contain provitamin A carotenoid, which can be converted to retinol in your body. Carotenoids are the yellow-red pigments that give carrots, butternut squash and cantaloupe their vibrant, deep orange color.

There are over 600 different carotenoids, but only 3—beta-carotene (β-carotene), beta-cryptoxanthin (β-cryptoxanthin) and alpha-carotene (α-carotene)—can be converted to vitamin A. These three provide approximately 25 to 35 percent of the dietary vitamin A consumed by adults in the United States, with the majority of it coming from beta-carotene. Other nutritionally significant carotenoids, including lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin, may function as antioxidants or provide health benefits, but cannot be converted to vitamin A.

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

Beta-carotene is a compound that is synthesized from elements in nature and then used as a supplement to encourage the production of vitamin A. Normally, naturally occurring carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables are converted into active vitamin A when healthy whole plant-based foods are eaten. Carotenoids are fat-soluble compounds that are rich in color and are found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as spinach, carrots, bell peppers and sweet potatoes. These foods promote bone health, reproductive health and good vision. Beta-carotene is synthesized to act like a member of the carotenoid family and is used in an attempt to supplement a diet that does not contain enough whole plant based foods.

Beyond its essential function as the raw material for vitamin A (often referred to as a provitamin A carotenoid), beta-carotene has many other health benefits. It’s a powerful antioxidant capable of mopping up free radicals, and it’s thought to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as several types of cancer. Research has linked higher blood levels of beta-carotene with lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation and a known risk factor for heart disease. Other research has found that beta-carotene inhibits collagen breakdown and defends epithelial cells against the kind of UV radiation that can lead to wrinkles and age spots, thus acting as a kind of internal sunscreen.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.