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Understanding vitamin A, carotenoids and beta carotene

By Denise Elliot

What is vitamin A?

Vitamin A was the first fat soluble vitamin recognised, in 1913, being fully identified in 1930.

Researchers found that young animals fed a diet deficient in natural fats did not grow and had poor immunity. They also had severely inflamed and infected eyes, all of which has been shown to be helped by vitamin A. In its purest form, it is termed retinol. Vitamin A is essential for immune function, and nourishes mucus lined surfaces throughout the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. The food sources with the highest concentrations of vitamin A are liver, kidney, butter, whole milk or fortified milk.

Vitamin A deficiency is wide spread in many under developed countries with many serious consequences. In Asia, deficiency of this vitamin is the major preventable cause of blindness.

You do need to be careful as high levels of vitamin A can be dangerous, whether from supplements or by food. This is especially so during pregnancy when the baby is developing, so please do seek advice from your health practitioner.


Carotenoids are a widespread group of naturally occurring pigments in nature. They are highly coloured, fat soluble compounds and in excess of 600 have been identified in our foods.

Of this group there are approximately 30 to 50 different types of carotenoids that have the capability to convert into vitamin A in the body. This is a way to obtain vitamin A with no risk of toxicity.

Plant based carotenoids do not have the same risk of toxicity, as pre-formed or synthetic vitamin A.


Beta-carotene is the most active of all the carotenoids because of its ability to convert to a high amount of vitamin A. To obtain the highest amount of beta-carotene from food sources, choose dark green leafy vegetables. The beta-carotene is found with the chlorophyll in the vegetable.

Dark green vegetables = increased beta carotene = more vitamin A conversion

Other brightly coloured fruits and vegetables also provide a mixture of beta-carotene and other carotenoids. Many of them offer fantastic antioxidant protection. Their antioxidant effect is thought to be responsible for the anti-cancer effects noted in many population studies. Lycopene is one that is very protective for the prostate gland and skin health. High Lycopene levels are found in tomatoes, particularly when cooked.

Most antioxidants require β€˜friends’ that allow them to work more efficiently, so different food groups, and bright colours in our foods, become important. Antioxidants are superb cellular protectors and as part of a wellness regime, are good ways to lessen the possibilities of degenerative disease.

When taking supplements it is important to have a broad range of antioxidants to provide a wide array of protection. Some supplements may contain beta carotene (or vitamin A) in a synthetic form, so it is important to check that they are from plant based sources.