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Beta Carotene


Beta carotene: introduction

Beta carotene belongs to the category of carotenoids, plant pigments that represent the precursors of vitamin A (retinol); however, the nutritional importance of beta carotene is not only that of being the precursor of the aforementioned vitamin. Among the several hundreds of carotenoids, in fact, Beta carotene has gained its own true independence, as we will see in the course of this article where the properties, side effects and recommended dose will be addressed.


The etymology of the term “carotene” is curious and connects us to carrots. In fact, this pro-vitamin was so named by the scientist Wackenroder, who managed to isolate the compound from the carrot root. We then had to wait until 1907 (Willstatter and Mieg) to clarify the structure of Beta carotene, until 1911 for its direct isolation from carrots (Willstatter and Escher), and until 1950 for its chemical synthesis (Milas et Al .; Karrer and Euguster).

Sources of beta carotene

Carotenoids are highly pigmented substances, whose color varies from red to orange, fat-soluble (they do not dissolve in water) and sensitive to light and heat; beta carotene is found in many fruits, cereals, oils and green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, apricots, peppers… and of course in carrots.



Alpha and gamma carotenoids are other forms of pro-vitamin A, but as anticipated, beta carotene certainly has the greatest nutritional importance, as:

  • It boasts antioxidant properties, counteracting the onset of free radicals
  • it is the main source of vitamin A for vegetarians: if necessary, beta carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A, involved in very important biological functions (for example the synthesis of glycoproteins)
  • is converted into retinol (essential for vision), which in turn is converted into retinoic acid, essential for the growth and differentiation of cells: in fact, if vitamin A is not formed, the organism is deficient, with the resulting in abnormal bone growth, dryness of the cornea of ​​the eye (xerophthalemia) and reproductive disorders.
  • its potential usefulness against the onset of cancer and diseases affecting the cardiovascular system is being tested: to ascertain this possible effect we will have to wait for more in-depth studies.

Beta carotene is present on the market in many supplement formulations; it can be produced in the laboratory, but can also derive from algae or fungi.

Studies on Beta carotene

After the work carried out by Moore (1957) brought the certainty that carotene represents the precursor of vitamin A, we had to wait until the end of the twentieth century to learn, thanks to two scientists, Garewal and Diplock, that beta carotene transforms in vitamin A only if the body actually needs it. In fact, excess beta carotene is deposited on the skin, which appears yellow in color (not to be confused with jaundice): this is a reversible condition, because it is enough to reduce the dose taken to ensure that the “carrot effect” (carotenodermia or carotenosis) disappears.

Beta carotene poisoning?

Apart from these episodes of carotenosis, it can be stated that chronic intoxication of beta-carotene is absolutely unlikely in the context of a correct diet: just to give a practical example, a person can safely take even 20,000 IU of vitamin A derived from carotenoids, without facing any danger. It should be considered, however, that if the 20,000 IU of vitamin A derive from retinol – which is found in high doses in bovine liver (30,000-50,000 IU per 100 g depending on cooking), in butter, in margarine (3,000 IU per 100 g ), in eggs (1,800 IU per 100 g) and in fatty cheese (1,000 IU per 100 g) – problems may arise in the body, as we are talking about immediately active and available vitamin A.

Indicative dosages

I know it recommended daily dose of Beta-carotene ranges from 2 to 4 mg, in smokers the supplementation – which in theory is useful in counteracting the increased oxidative stress linked to the smoking habit – could, in reality, be contraindicated: in fact, studies have been conducted studies on smokers who did not take beta carotene supplements compared with those who did not; Despite expectations, there was a higher incidence of lung cancer in the group taking the supplement.
In other studies, it has been proven that theexcessive supplementation of beta carotene can increase the risk of prostate cancer, but not only: cardiovascular problems and intracerebral hemorrhage are possible consequences of an excess of beta carotene in smokers and in people who have been exposed to asbestos.

Excess and deficiency

Another possible side effect resulting from excessive consumption of Beta carotene is to block the recovery capacity of fat-soluble vitamins from the liver, such as vitamin D, preventing the formation of a reserve of these vitamins: this side effect can become particularly important in countries far from the Equator, where the storage of vitamin D is essential to deal with the scarcity of winter light.

No symptoms are recorded from shortage of beta-carotene, unless there is also an underlying retinol deficiency; in this case the symptoms include vision problems, skin problems and susceptibility to infections.

A generous intake of beta carotene would be appropriate in people who expose themselves to the sun for long periods, in the elderly, against senile maculopathy, and in those who drink alcohol, because ethanol destroys the reserves of vitamin A in the liver. Given the potential side effects, it is advisable, however, to consult your doctor before taking beta-carotene supplements. To be clear, 2 mg of beta carotene (daily dose) is contained in each of the following portions:

Positive effects of beta carotene


From what has been stated in the article, the importance of correct nutritional education is evident once again, rather than the excessive use of supplements, driven by excessive enthusiasm towards these practices. In fact, if within a balanced diet and taken through foods that are rich in it, beta-carotene demonstrates all its potential benefits, the isolation of this provitamin and its administration in high doses have often produced contrary effects to those hoped for, even increasing the risk of developing pathologies for which preventive action was hypothesized. Hence the importance of optimizing your diet and lifestyle first of all, and then possibly consulting a doctor or nutrition expert to ascertain the actual need for an additional intake of beta-carotene or other nutrients.

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