Foods High in Beta Carotene: Benefits, Uses And Side Effects

Beta carotene is a precursor to Vitamin A. It gives the skin its healthy yellow-orange colour and makes it tougher, less wrinkled, and more resistant to damage from ultraviolet radiation.

One of beta carotene’s most important uses is as an antioxidant. It helps protect your cells against oxidative stress caused by free radicals in food or environmental toxins like cigarette smoke.

As a potent antioxidant beta-carotene has been shown to play an important role in the prevention of cancerous cells but also a range of other diseases. Therefore, it’s important to keep up with your nutrition, eating a diet full of foods that are high in beta carotene. There are also many beta-carotene supplements available these days. We will take a closer look, later on, to see if they are a good option.


What is Beta Carotene?

Beta-carotene belongs to the group of carotenoids and is also known under the name provitamin A. This secondary plant substance is a precursor of the fat-soluble vitamin A. Beta carotene is responsible for the intense orange, yellow or red colour of carrots, peppers, apricots, beetroot and many other vegetables and fruits. 


Beta Carotene in our food

Beta carotene is a pigment (pigment = colouring agent) that occurs naturally in plants and animals. This plant compound can be predominantly found in vegetables with red, orange or yellow colours. It can also be found in dark green leafy vegetables. The darker the green, the higher the beta carotene content. Carrots are one of the most well-known sources of beta carotene. The beta carotene in our bodies can be converted into retinol, which is one way to fight off cancer and other diseases. Surprisingly though, they are not the highest in beta carotene contents. Read on to find out, which foods are especially high in beta carotene.


Homemade Vegan Pesto with carrot greens and alfalfa sprouts


Beta Carotene and Vitamin A

Beta carotene is also often referred to as Vitamin A. This is because when we absorb beta carotene through food, our bodies convert it into vitamin A. This happens with the help of enzymes. Vitamin A is extremely important for our body, but it is important to know that it can only be absorbed directly through animal food sources. Beta carotene on the other hand predominantly exists in plants. Therefore, a sufficient supply of beta carotene in the diet is especially important for vegetarians and vegans. 


Health Benefits of Beta Carotene

Beta carotene has many important functions in our body. On the one hand, it has an antioxidant effect and thus protects us from free radicals. On the other hand, beta carotene has an anti-inflammatory effect and protects us from harmful sunlight. Beta carotene plays an important role in the formation of red blood cells. At the same time, it strengthens our immune system, keeps our hormone balance, ensures healthy skin and supports our eyesight. Our fat metabolism also needs beta carotene and vitamin A to function optimally. Last but not least, beta carotene plays an important role in bone formation. 


Beta Carotene Is A Powerful Antioxidant

Antioxidants are natural substances (minerals, vitamins or compounds in food) that protect cells from damage as they fight free radicals. Free radicals are being created through normal bodily functions. For example, when we breathe. At the same time, we are being exposed to free radicals all the time in our environment. For example, by ultraviolet rays or breathing in smoke. If we do not have enough antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals, they are able to freely travel through our bodies, damaging our cells.

Antioxidant enzymes in the body help to prevent the oxidation of lipids and proteins, which can lead to cell death or inflammation. Furthermore, antioxidants are considered being important because they protect the body from oxidative stress. Beta carotene is a powerful antioxidant with multiple benefits. The most notable of these is its ability to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are a reactive oxygen species and a natural byproduct of the body’s own metabolic processes.


Beta Carotene and Heart Disease

Cellular damage through free radicals leads to oxidation of Cholesterol. This is one of the main known reasons for the development of heart disease. The process of cholesterol oxidation may sound complicated, but it isn’t. In short, it means oxygen molecules bind with low-density lipoproteins, also known as LDL and are often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This process results in an increase of fatty plaque on the walls of our arteries. This in turn leads to atherosclerosis and eventually blocks the blood flow to our heart.

Due to the strong antioxidant effect of beta carotene, an increased intake of this plant substance can reduce the risk of heart diseases. Especially heart attacks and strokes. Since beta carotene reduces the oxidation process of LDL cholesterol in the body, it also reduces the risk of arteriosclerosis. A sufficient intake of beta carotene in the diet can therefore prevent a variety of cardiovascular diseases. 


Can Beta Carotene Prevent Cancer?

Beta carotene or Vitamin A is also extremely important for the prevention of cancer. Especially with regard to stomach cancer. Vitamin A is an essential component in the formation of the stomach lining, protecting our stomach from acidic gastric juices.

Studies have shown that an adequate intake of beta carotene or Vitamin A in the diet can reduce the risk of stomach cancer by 50%. Because beta carotene has a high antioxidant effect, it can also protect us from other cancers. Above all, beta carotene is extremely effective in the prophylaxis of liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, oesophageal cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer and cervical cancer. 


Effects of Beta Carotene On Our Brain

Oxidative stress damages our cells. Long periods of oxidative stress are a major factor in the decline in cognitive functions. As we have seen already, beta carotene is a powerful antioxidant, which can fight the process of oxidation. Oxidative stress has a range of negative effects on our brain. It is partly responsible for the decline in cognitive functions and even the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The antioxidative effect of beta carotene does not only protect us from cancer. It also has a positive effect on our brain and cognitive function. This effect is due to better communication between brain cells, as well as a longer lifespan of brain cells. Especially in Alzheimer’s disease, a sufficient or slightly increased intake of beta-carotene in the diet can have positive effects. 


Beta Carotene Is Anti-Inflammatory

A high number of free radicals in the body is usually associated with a high level of inflammation in the body. One of the most important inflammatory markers is interleukin-6. This is released by our white blood cells in case of inflammation in our body. The higher the level of interleukin-6 in the body, the higher the level of inflammation.

Research has shown a close relationship between interleukin-6 and beta carotene levels in the body. A high level of interleukin-6 is associated with a low level of beta carotene. However, if the intake of beta-carotene is increased, the interleukin-6 level is reduced. Beta carotene, therefore, has a strong anti-inflammatory effect on our body and should be consumed in sufficient quantities in the diet. 


beta carotene


Vitamin A strengthens our eyesight

Our body converts beta carotene into vitamin A. Vitamin A is often referred to as the eye vitamin, as it is largely responsible for our vision and eye health. A vitamin A deficiency leads to eye burns due to the drying out of corneal cells in the eye, as well as conjunctivitis. In order to ensure that our eyes continue to function well into old age, we should ensure that our dietary intake of beta carotene and vitamin A is sufficient, even at a young age. 


Beta Carotene: A Fat-Soluble Vitamin 

It turns out that beta carotene is a real miracle cure with many positive effects. It should be consumed in sufficient quantities to support various functions of our body. However, it is important to know that beta carotene is a fat-soluble vitamin. What does this mean? Beta carotene can only develop its full effect if it is taken together with fat.

High-quality fats such as avocado or cold-pressed oils like olive oil are particularly suitable. In addition, the bioavailability (that means how well the body can absorb the nutrients it contains) of beta carotene is increased by pureeing, mixing or intensive chewing. Like many other vitamins, beta carotene is also destroyed by strong heating. This is why beta carotene should primarily be consumed raw. 


Which Foods Are Rich in Beta Carotene?

The secondary plant substance beta carotene is mainly found in vegetables, fruits and roots. The typical orange of carrots, for example, is due to beta carotene as a natural food colouring. Accordingly, the carrot is also the eponym for the carotenes, of which beta carotene is the best-known member.

The following foods are particularly high in beta carotene:

  • Sweet potatoes – 7.9 mg per 100g.
  • Carrots – 7.6 mg per 100g.
  • Kale – 5.2 mg per 100g.
  • Spinach – 4.8 mg per 100g.
  • Fennel – 4.7 mg per 100g.
  • Lamb’s lettuce – 3.9 mg per 100g.
  • Chard – 3.5 mg per 100g.
  • Chicory – 3.4 mg per 100g.
  • Arugula – 1.4 mg per 100g.


How to Improve your Beta Carotene Intake by Eating Sprouts

As we have seen earlier a lot of foods high in beta carotene are yellow, orange or red. But there are also a variety of sprouts and microgreens, which are loaded with beta carotene and most of them aren’t even orange. Sprouts and microgreens are the young edible shoots of a plant. They can be eaten shortly after the first leaves have developed. Because sprouts and microgreens are the early stage of a plant, they have significantly higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than their grown counterparts.

Especially the levels of beta carotene in the young shoots of a plant compared to the full grown plant was astounding. 23 out of the 25 most popular microgreens varieties that were tested, showed a much higher beta carotene content than the mature plant. Many of them also contained other carotenoids such as zeaxanthin and lutein.

Microgreens with the highest beta carotene levels are:

  • red sorrel
  • cilantro
  • garnet amaranth
  • red mustard
  • red cabbage
  • wasabi
  • red beet
  • peppercress
  • green basil
  • daikon radish
  • green pea shoots
  • arugula


All of these have shown to have higher beta carotene levels than carrots. So if you want to really step up your beta carotene game, make sure to incorporate plenty of sprouts and microgreens into your diet. They taste delicious and are super easy to grow at home. One thing to keep in mind when adding carotenoid-rich sprouts to your meals is that beta carotene is fat-soluble. This means your body needs fat to fully absorb this nutrient. Make sure to add a source of healthy fats to your sprout-rich meals. It doesn’t have to be much tough, around 3-5 grams of fat per meal is sufficient. This is the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon olive oil or a quarter of an avocado.


quinoa salad


Symptoms of Beta Carotene Deficiency?

A deficiency of beta carotene can manifest itself in different symptoms. Vitamin A, which is derived from beta carotene, is an important vitamin for our eye health and good vision. A deficiency of beta carotene manifests itself mainly in our vision. It often leads to visual disturbances and a reduction in visual acuity.

Corneal clouding and poor vision at dusk due to dry eye bags can also be symptoms. White, foam-like formations in the eye and ulcers on the cornea are also clear symptoms of beta carotene deficiency. Without enough vitamin A, the cornea melts and we go blind.

Dry skin, hair loss and dry mucous membranes can also be symptoms of vitamin A, or beta carotene, deficiency. The salivary glands produce less saliva, which in turn can cause inflammation of the oral mucosa and gums. Smell disorders and a reduced sense of smell, as well as concentration problems, are other symptoms. Fatigue and breathing difficulties can also be an indication of a beta carotene deficiency in the diet.


Beta Carotene Deficiency in Pregnancy and Childhood

Especially during pregnancy and childhood, care should be taken to ensure a sufficient intake of beta carotene. A deficiency can lead to malformations of the foetus during pregnancy. The gastrointestinal tract, the auditory system and the reproductive organs are particularly affected. A beta carotene deficiency in childhood can lead to growth disorders and impaired tooth formation.

Beta carotene also supports our immune system. A deficiency can result in a reduction of our immune defence. Especially in children and older people.


Is a Beta Carotene Supplement Useful?

Today there are numerous versions of a beta carotene supplement for all those who do not want to get their beta carotene through food. These supplements promise all kinds of health benefits. Above all, they claim that they lead to a beautiful tan on the skin, “natural sun protection” and better vision. These promises have not been scientifically proven. 


Side Effects

Beta carotene is safe when taken in moderate amounts or even in high amounts through foods. Since our body converts beta carotene to Vitamin A, it will only use as much beta carotene as it needs to reach an optimal Vitamin A level. Excess beta carotene will be eliminated. Beta carotene supplements on the other hand are not recommended for general use.

Taking high doses of beta carotene supplements for long periods of time may have the opposite effect you are looking for. It increases the risk of some cancers and has been shown to increase the likelihood of death from various other causes. Other side effects, such as a yellow or orange tint to the skin are also possible when consuming high doses of beta carotene.

A change in skin colour can also occur when eating huge quantities of beta carotene from foods. This will subside as soon as you lower those quantities again. The other side effects, such as an increased risk of cancer, however, do not seem to occur when consuming excess beta carotene through food sources.


Beta Carotene & Smoking

Especially smokers should be very careful with taking beta carotene supplements. Synthetic beta carotene can have harmful effects on the health of smokers. Studies show that the intake of synthetic beta carotene in combination with regular smoking significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer.


Final Thoughts on Vitamin A and Beta Carotene

Beta-carotene is a powerful nutrient that can offer a host of benefits for your health. By adding more beta-carotene-rich foods to your diet, you can boost your intake of this important nutrient and with that boost your health significantly. Studies have shown that adequate intake of beta carotene can reduce your risk of various cancers, improve your cardiovascular health and lead to better vision and memory.

Beta carotene levels are especially high in fruits and vegetables with red, orange or yellow colours but also in dark green leafy vegetables. Good to know here is: the darker the green, the higher the beta carotene content. Beta carotene levels in sprouts and microgreens are significantly higher than in their grown counterparts. Incorporating plenty of fresh sprouts and microgreens into your diet can help you to improve your beta carotene levels in a short period of time. If you eat a healthy and balanced, predominantly plant-based diet you should not have to worry too much about your beta carotene intake and do not require any beta carotene supplements.

Beta carotene supplements have shown to have negative effects if consumed in high doses. It is important to speak with your doctor before you take any beta carotene supplements. Especially if you are a smoker or are taking other medication. Beta carotene supplements could increase your risk for various diseases or interfere with your other medications. As a general rule, it is always better and safer to take vitamins in their natural form through foods instead of relying on food supplements.

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Hannah Reeves

Hello, I am the founder of Hey Sprouty and I am passionate about sustainability and living a simpler, healthier and happier life. I love to cook and to grow my own veggies. I also can't live without the sunshine! That's why I moved to Portugal. When I don't work on Hey Sprouty to share my passion for sprouts, then I am working to transform a neglected piece of land into a permaculture food forest.

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