Deep yellow corn, bright orange carrots and crimson red tomatoes all get their vibrant colors from carotenoids. Carotenoids are one of the many types of phytochemicals that add color to our fruits and vegetables and provide amazing health benefits. The foods highest in carotenoids are typically fruits and vegetables with dark yellow, orange and red hues. Dark, leafy green vegetables are also excellent sources of carotenoids. The characteristic carotenoid color is masked by the strong green of chlorophyll present in these plants. (1)
Like other phytochemicals, carotenoids are powerful antioxidants, which help to protect your body from damage by free radicals. (Free radicals are molecules that can damage the healthy cells in your body and lead to cancer and other diseases). Multiple studies have shown that eating foods high in carotenoids can decrease your risk of certain cancers, heart disease and macular degeneration (eye disease). (1,2) According to the AICR (American Institute of Cancer Research), high-carotenoid foods can protect against cancers of the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box) and lungs. (3) The latest research also shows that women with the highest levels of carotenoids in their blood stream have a reduced risk of breast cancers compared to women with lower carotenoid levels. (4)
There are more than 600 types of naturally-occurring carotenoids in the world! (1,2)
The most prevalent carotenoids in typical North American foods are: provitamin A carotenoids (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin), lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. (5)
- Provitamin A carotenoids: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. These can be converted into vitamin A in your body. Vitamin A is important for good immune function, maintaining healthy cells, skin health, eyesight, bone health and fighting cancer cells. Some of the best sources of these carotenoids are: carrots, winter squash (including pumpkins), sweet potatoes, spinach, collards, kale, turnip greens, cantaloupe, papayas and sweet red peppers. (5,6,7)
- Lutein and zeaxanthin. These are the only carotenoids that are found in the retina of your eye. They protect your eye health by filtering high-energy blue light rays that can be harmful. These carotenoids can reduce your risk of chronic eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Some of the best sources of lutein and zeaxanthin are leafy greens, including: spinach, kale, turnip greens, collards, dandelion greens and mustard greens. Summer squash, winter squash (including pumpkin), peas, brussels sprouts, broccoli and yellow corn are also good sources. (5,7,8,9)
- Lycopene. Like the other carotenoids, lycopene has strong cancer-fighting properties. Lycopene may also have anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits and help protect against heart attacks. The best sources of lycopene are cooked tomato products, such as: tomato paste, tomato puree, tomato soup and juice. Raw tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit are also good sources. For more information on lycopene, check out the “Eat red for lycopene” blog. (5)
Carotenoids are fat-soluble. That means your body will absorb them better when you eat them with a little fat. So, go ahead, saute your carrots in some olive oil or toss the kale with a little healthy oil and lemon dressing to boost the health benefits.
Skip the carotenoid supplements and go for whole foods. Studies show that supplements don’t give the same great benefits as the real food! (4)
Looking for ideas on how to boost your orange veggie intake? Check out this fun link:
Best Health Mag. 10 Ways to Eat Orange Vegetables. http://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-eats/cooking/10-ways-to-eat-orange-vegetables/
- Webb D. Antioxidants: The Carotenoid Color Wheel. Today’s Dietitian. 2016;18(9):12.
- Antioxidants – Protecting Healthy Cells. Eat right. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Dec 22, 2014. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- Carotenoids and Breast Cancer Prevention. American Institute for Cancer Research. April 24, 2013. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- Carotenoids May Protect Against Certain Breast Cancers. American Institute for Cancer Research. Feb 10, 2016. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- Carotenoids. Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Center. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer: Carrots. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer: Squash. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer: Dark Green Leafy Vegetables. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin. American Optometric Association. Accessed Jan 8, 2017.
- AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer: Tomatoes. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed Jan 11, 2017.