Under the spotlight: VITAMIN A vs. BETA CAROTENE
The VITL Nutrition Team
Our in-house nutritionist breaks down vitamin A and beta carotene: what they are, how they differ and their benefits.
What's the difference?
First things first, what is the difference between vitamin A and beta carotene?
The two are inadvertently linked, as beta carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, which means it is a compound that is metabolised to produce another compound 1. Many chemical processes in the body include numerous steps to synthesise nutrients and hormones that the body can use. The body readily converts beta carotene into vitamin A 2.
Where do you find beta carotene?
Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid (pigment) that gives certain vegetables their bright red, yellow & orange colours. Beta carotene is abundant in carrots, sweet potatoes, red and yellow bell peppers, butternut squash and apricots. Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli also contain a fair amount of beta carotene so don’t shy away from eating these! Cooked spinach and cooked carrots contain more beta carotene than when eaten raw.
There is no specific recommendation for the amount of beta carotene to eat, however, ensuring you get 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables will give you plenty of carotenoids 3.
What are vitamin A rich sources?
Whilst beta carotene is only found in plants, vitamin A (also known as retinol) is only found in animal products, with the richest food sources being; liver pâté, oily fish, cheese, eggs, milk and milk products, as well as certain fortified products such as butter and margarine.
What are the benefits?
As well as serving as a precursor to vitamin A, beta carotene has a host of its own benefits. It is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from oxidative damage or reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are known contributors to certain chronic diseases 4, 5, 6.
The antioxidant benefits of beta carotene have an impact on skin health, for example, they can enhance the skin’s protection against the sun’s rays. It is important to note that this protection isn’t as effective as wearing sunscreen 7.
Diets rich in carotenoids, such as beta carotene, may help to support eye health. Research has demonstrated a modest benefit in reducing the risk for progression from moderate to advanced age-macular degeneration and vision loss 8. However, additional large-scale trials are required to confirm this effect and to identify the most effective combination/ dosage before any recommendations can be made.
What about during pregnancy?
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient for everyone, especially pregnant women, as it promotes healthy growth and reproduction. However, studies have shown that, taken in high amounts, vitamin A can be dangerous to the unborn child 9.
For this reason, supplements with preformed vitamin A should be taken cautiously. Additionally, dietary guidelines state that pregnant women should avoid liver and liver products in the first trimester as these contain high concentrations of vitamin A. Furthermore, vitamin A is fat soluble which means any excess doesn’t leave the body as quickly as its water soluble counterparts 10.
Beta carotene is the preferred supplement to take during pregnancy for the above mentioned reasons, and it has been established that the beta carotene bioavailability from supplements is better than from foods, so it is encouraged to supplement with beta carotene to meet vitamin A requirements.
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