Carotenoids are a widespread family of plant pigments found mostly in vegetables (and some fruits) that are red, orange, and deep yellow in color. Sea animals with a red or pinkish color, such as salmon, lobster, shrimp and crab also contain a carotenoid named astaxanthin that they absorb from the algae in their diets.
Much like the anthocyanins, carotenoids are antioxidants that protect plants against oxidative stress from ultraviolet sunlight. When you eat these vegetables, you get the antioxidant benefits for yourself.
More than 700 carotenoids have been discovered thus far. Of these, only about a dozen have been studied close enough so that we know what they do. And while each one has its own benefits, a combination of them, as found in a balanced diet, have proven to be more effective than any individual one by itself.
Antioxidants always work better in combinations. Throughout this website, I will continue to point out the fact that antioxidants always work better when consumed in combinations. That's a good reason why you should disregard the conclusions of any study that tries to isolate just one antioxidant in order to evaluate its effectiveness.
Antioxidant benefits. Carotenoids are powerful anti-aging antioxidants, protecting the cells of the body from damage caused by free radicals. As I mentioned above, they work in combination with each other and other antioxidants, including the network antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E, lipoic acid, and the antioxidant enzymes produced in your body: superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase.
A diet rich in carotenoids offers these specific benefits:
Cancer prevention. Numerous studies have confirmed that people who eat foods rich in carotenes have a much lower risk of developing cancer. The main reason for this seems to be that these potent antioxidants are able to reduce the free radical damage to DNA that is believed to be the root cause of most cancers.
Carotenoids have also shown the ability to stimulate communication between cells, which may play a role in cancer prevention. Researchers believe that disrupted communication between cells may be a primary cause of cell overgrowth, a early marker for cancer development.
Different members of this family of antioxidants seem to protect against different types of cancer, again demonstrating the importance of getting a variety of them in your diet.
Carotenoids are found in fruits and vegetables that are red, orange, and deep yellow in color, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, corn and peppers, among others. Dark-green leafy vegetables are some other good sources. See the links below for more information about specific types of carotenoids and their best sources.
Carotenes are absorbed much better when you eat them with fats, since they are transported through your bloodstream by your LDL-cholesterol. Cooking vegetables also loosens the carotene from the fiber of the vegetable and greatly increases the amount available to your body.
I recommend that you browse through the individual pages for the members of the carotenoid family listed below. You'll get a better idea of the specific benefits each one offers, and also learn if you're getting enough of them in your diet.
Some antioxidants are found in only a few different foods, and it's easy to miss out on one if you don't eat a varied-enough diet.
For example: cooked tomatoes are the only excellent source of lycopene, a powerful anti-cancer antioxidant. If you don't eat tomato sauce on a regular basis, you aren't getting much lycopene in your diet. And your body does not build up reserves of lycopene; it needs to be replenished frequently.
Beta carotene — Pro-vitamin A (meaning that it converts to vitamin A in the body). Provides powerful antioxidant protection against heart disease, cancer and respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin — These are the only carotenoids found in the retina and lens of the eye. They help reduce your risk of developing age-related cataracts and macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over 50.
Lycopene — A more powerful antioxidant than beta carotene; promotes prostate health and cancer prevention; mostly associated with tomatoes, its primary source.
Astaxanthin — The most powerful of the carotenoids, by far. Astaxanthin can penetrate into every part of the cell, an extraordinary quality.