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Beta-Carotene

Other name(s)

vitamin A, b-carotene, provitamin A

General

Beta-carotene is a type of substance called a carotenoid. Carotenoids give plants such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and apricots their reddish-violet colors.

Beta-carotene is a provitamin. This means it's used by your body to make vitamin A. Provitamin A is only found in plants. Vitamin A is also found in foods from animals. Vitamin A from animal sources is called preformed vitamin A. This means it is in a form your body can use directly. It's found in dairy products, fish oils, eggs, and meat (especially liver). The vitamin A your body makes from beta-carotene doesn’t build up in your body to toxic levels. But vitamin A from animal sources can.

Vitamin A is available in multivitamins and as a stand-alone supplement. Vitamin A supplements can contain only beta-carotene, only preformed vitamin A, or a combination of both types of vitamin A.

If your body doesn't use all the beta-carotene you eat to make vitamin A, the beta-carotene that remains circulates in your body. Beta-carotene is also an antioxidant. It helps keep cells healthy.

Main functions

Beta-carotene and vitamin A play a vital part in the reproductive process. They also help keep skin, eyes, and the immune system healthy.

Demonstrated uses

Beta-carotene and other carotenoids help reduce free radical damage in your body.

Taking beta-carotene supplements can help you get enough vitamin A. These supplements are considered safe.

Reasons for increased need

Poor nutrition is a leading cause of beta-carotene and vitamin A deficiency. These problems can keep you from getting enough vitamin A:

  • Lactose intolerance

  • Celiac disease (Sprue)

  • Cystic fibrosis

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may need to take supplements. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before doing this.

Claims

Beta-carotene may reduce the risk of some types of cancer, such as prostate cancer. But more research is needed to know the effects of vitamin A on other types of cancer.

It may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, studies seem to show that neither beta-carotene nor vitamin A help prevent coronary heart disease.

One study found a higher risk of lung cancer in smokers and workers exposed to asbestos when they had more beta-carotene.

Recommended intake

There are no Dietary Reference Intakes for beta-carotene. The Recommended Dietary Allowances for vitamin A are noted below. They’re noted in micrograms (mcg) of retinol activity equivalents (RAE). They’re also noted in International Units (IUs).

Age

(years)

Children

(mcg RAE)

Males

(mcg RAE)

Females

(mcg RAE)

Pregnancy

(mcg RAE)

Lactation

(mcg RAE)

1-3

300 (1,000 IU)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4-8

400 (1,321 IU)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9-13

600 (2,000 IU)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14-18

 

 

900 (3,000 IU)

700 (2,310 IU)

750 (2,500 IU)

1,200 (4,000 IU)

19+

 

 

900 (3,000 IU)

700 (2,310 IU)

770 (2,565 IU)

1,300 (4,300 IU)

Age (months)

Males and Females (mcg RAE)

0-6

400 (1,320 IU)

7-12

500 (1,650 IU)

Food sources

This table notes the IU of vitamin A in foods. It also notes the percentage of your daily value of vitamin A that the food meets.

Food

Vitamin A (mcg RAE)

% DV

Sweet potato, baked in skin, 1 whole

1,403

156

Spinach, frozen, boiled, ½ cup

573

64

Carrots, raw, ½ cup

459

51

Cantaloupe, raw, ½ cup

135

15

Black-eyed peas (cowpeas), boiled, 1 cup

66

7

Apricots, dried, sulfured, 10 halves

63

7

Eating more fruits and vegetables can help you get more beta-carotene. Red, orange, deep yellow, and dark green produce tends to be high in carotenoids.

Signs of deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency can cause symptoms such as, night blindness, fatigue, skin issues, and a weakened immune system. Severe vitamin A problems can lead to blindness. This is a leading cause of blindness in some parts of the world.

Toxicity

Beta-carotene doesn’t seem to be toxic in large doses. But high doses over a long time can lead to carotenemia. This causes your skin to become yellowish orange.

Too much beta-carotene is a problem for some people. This includes people who can't convert beta-carotene to vitamin A. This can happen to people who have hypothyroidism.

Higher doses of vitamin A may increase the risk for fractures in both women past menopause, and in men.

High dose supplements with preformed vitamin A are not recommended during pregnancy. Too much may cause birth defects or miscarriage.

Interactions

Orlistat, a medicine for weight loss, decreases fat absorption in the body. Because of this, it may also reduce absorption of beta-carotene and vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin.

You should not use vitamin A or beta-carotene supplements if you take any of these medicines, as they contain derivatives of vitamin A:

  • Isotretinoin

  • Acitretin

  • Etretinate

Online Medical Reviewer: Bianca Garilli MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Brittany Poulson MDA RDN CD CDE
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
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