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Nutrient - Brilliant beta carotene!

By Kelly Walker DipION FdSc VN MBANT

There are literally hundreds of plant nutrients that we know about  and many more waiting to be discovered. More and more is being discovered about their benefits on a daily basis. How often do you pick up the newspaper and see an article on the latest antioxidant or superfood?

Plant-based nutrients can be most beneficial but we shouldn’t forget  the well-known and well-researched ones when we read about the latest trend. We have known about beta carotene for many many years. It is the health-giving carotenoid naturally found in orange or green coloured plants. Carotenoids are widely spread in nature and, so far, over 600 have been identified. There are many dietary sources of beta carotene, including carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach, apricots, green peppers and other green plants. 

Beta carotene has many roles within the body, including supporting eye health. Who has not heard that carrots help rabbits to see in the dark?

Beta carotene is readily converted to vitamin A within the body. Vitamin A is needed to maintain our first line of defence – our natural barriers to infection. This includes keeping the skin and the linings of the respiratory tract and gut healthy. A low vitamin A status may increase the risk of picking up an infection. It  may also be associated with dry, flaky skin, dandruff and acne.

Conversion of beta carotene to vitamin A occurs as and when the body requires it. Quite simply, if you have a good vitamin A status then any additional beta carotene is not converted. This makes it particularly useful for pregnant women who wish to keep up their vitamin A status but, quite wisely, are avoiding vitamin A supplements because of the risks associated with vitamin A in pregnancy.

It seems beta carotene, before conversion, may also be useful prior to pregnancy, as it may support healthy ovulation.

Beta carotene supplementation can be an excellent way of obtaining vitamin A for those who do not eat vitamin A-rich foods. This is particularly important for anyone whose diet is vegan. 

Both beta carotene and vitamin A are rich antioxidants. Antioxidants help to protect the body from damage by molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that attack body cells, causing damage. They arise from normal body processes; vigorous exercise, for example, releases free radicals. We are bombarded with free radicals from many sources, such as environmental pollution, UV rays and burnt or chargrilled food. Additional antioxidant support may help to “mop up” the damaging free radicals and reduce conditions associated with them, such as heart disease, joint disease and signs of ageing.

Beta carotene is, quite simply, brilliant – so don’t let it get overshadowed by the latest discovery! 

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