Beta carotene is a pigment that occurs naturally in some foods, and that may provide several health benefits when consumed in sufficient quantities. Among the most commonly eaten foods with beta carotene are orange fruits and vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and squash. Beta carotene is also found in leafy vegetables such as lettuce, various greens, and kale. In order to derive maximum nutritional benefits from foods with beta carotene, it is important to avoid overcooking them. It should also be noted that beta carotene supplements may not be a good substitute for foods with beta carotene.
One of a group of natural pigments known as carotenoids, beta carotene is a pro-vitamin, or a compound that is converted by the body into vitamin A. Maintaining adequate levels of this vitamin within the body is crucial to one’s well-being, as it promotes bone development as well as eye and reproductive health. Another significant benefit of beta carotene is its antioxidant property. Like all antioxidants, beta carotene may help neutralize molecules known as free radicals, which can cause cellular damage. As a result, beta carotene may reduce one’s cancer risk and strengthen the immune system.
To derive these benefits, many health experts recommend regularly eating foods which contain beta carotene. As this pigment is bright orange in color, many of the foods which contain large amounts of it can be identified simply by their hue. For instance, carrots are one of the top sources of beta carotene. Other orange foods which contain large amounts of the compound include pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash.
Not all foods with beta carotene are orange, however. In some cases, the combination of beta carotene with other pigments can result in foods that are dark in color. This is especially true for leafy vegetables like kale, lettuce, collard greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens. Despite the fact that these foods do not show even a hint of orange coloration, they are actually quite rich in beta carotene.
It is important to understand that even those foods that contain very high levels of beta carotene may provide few health benefits if they are prepared improperly. Overcooking fruits and vegetables tends to sap their nutrients. To preserve beta carotene levels in a food, it should be eaten raw or steamed briefly.
Medical researchers have determined that beta carotene supplements may not be an acceptable substitute for consuming foods with beta carotene. In fact, some evidence suggests that artificial beta carotene supplements may actually increase cancer risk in those who smoke and also consume large amounts of alcohol. Consequently, it may be best to obtain this compound through natural foods.