Carotenoids? Yep. Think carrots and that striking orange color, and you’ve got a good start. In fact, carotenoids are the pigments in plants and fruits and vegetables that give them their bright red, orange, or yellow color. Also, as fat-soluble nutrients, carotenoids offer powerful antioxidant benefits. These phytonutrients have the ability to fight free radical damage, lower inflammation levels, and fight disease. But the benefits of carotenoids don’t stop there. In fact, the benefits of carotenoids include the ability to improve vision health, naturally boost the immune system, protect the skin from damage, promote healthy growth and development, and more. (1)
While you don’t need to know all the names of the different carotenoids, some may sound familiar. Common carotenoids include beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene. Beta-carotene can be found in squash, spinach, sweet potatoes, and carrots. It possesses anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory benefits. Lutein and zeaxanthin are known for their ability to protect the eyes from damage. Foods that contain these carotenoids include dark green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables, like spinach, kale, turnip greens, and Brussels sprouts. Lycopene, found in tomatoes, has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of prostate cancer. (2)
And it may be confusing. The dark green leafy vegetables are clearly not yellow. Right? But think of a tree in autumn. When the chlorophyll fades, what’s left? That’s the color of the carotenoid showing through, whether it’s yellow, orange, or red.
Benefits of Carotenoids
1. Lowers Inflammation
So let’s start with a biggie! The benefits of carotenoids include the ability to fight inflammation in the body. For one, carotenoids offer antioxidant properties that help block oxidative stress from forming. Lycopene, in particular, is one of the strongest anti-inflammatory carotenoids. Furthermore, benefits of carotenoids include the ability to lower the risk of heart disease, arteriosclerosis and other types of cardiovascular disease, which may be triggered by inflammation. (3)
2. Promotes Healthy Growth and Development
Second, benefits of carotenoids include the ability to promote healthy growth and development in infants and toddlers. You see, Vitamin A is critical to cellular growth and development, as is commonly known. (Just ask a Mom what she needed for a healthy pregnancy!) The carotenoid beta-carotene, called a “Provitamin A,” is converted by the body into retinol, a form of Vitamin A. Beta-carotene, then, further plays a role in the synthesis of connexin proteins, allowing cells to effectively communicate with each other and promote healthy growth patterns. (4, 5)
3. Promotes Vision Health
Another benefit of carotenoids, especially lutein and zeaxanthin, includes the ability to promote vision health. The body uses lutein and zeaxanthin to form the lens and retina of the eye. They help protect the eyes from age-related diseases, and from light diseases especially, like macular degeneration and cataracts. Studies have shown that consuming plenty of carotenoid-rich, brightly-colored fruits and vegetables can help protect your eyes as you age. (6)
4. Boosts Immunity
Just as important, the benefits of carotenoids include the ability to naturally boost the immune system. Research has linked high carotenoid intake with strong immune function. And this is not only from provitamin-A beta-carotene, but also from lycopene. Thanks to their anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and chemoprotective properties, benefits of carotenoids also include the ability to fight off illness and infection, as well as deadly diseases like cancer. (7)
5. Protects the Skin from Damage
Lastly, the benefits of carotenoids include the ability to help protect the skin from damage. In this way, carotenoids are called photoprotective. Studies have shown that diets high in carotenoids can help prevent damage caused by UV light. UV damage can cause premature aging, wrinkles, dry skin, as well as melanoma. Benefits of carotenoids and beta-carotene, in particular, also include the ability to prevent keratinization of the skin, which causes the cells to lose their moisture and dry out. Furthermore, Vitamin A can also help fight skin cancer by preventing oxidative damage. (8, 9)
Possible Side Effects
Is it possible to over-consume carotenoids? Well, Vitamin A toxicity is a well-known possibility, but does that translate to provitamin A carotenoids? Unlikely. “Provitamin A (beta-carotene and other carotenoids), found in plants such as green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, and carrots, must be metabolized to vitamin A. As a result, it is less likely to cause toxicity.” (10) Still, watch for discoloration of skin, such as a baby gets when she eats too many sweet potatoes. Therefore, cut back on these foods if skin pigmentation occurs.