From astaxanthin to zeaxanthin, carotenoids color our world. They’re the buttery yellow of daffodils, the pink plumage of flamingos, the brilliant palette of autumn leaves, and the vivid hues of carrots, watermelon, salmon, and egg yolks. But these organic pigments provide more than a visual treat—they also enhance our health.
Produced in a wide range of plants, algae, and bacteria, these red, yellow, and orange pigments absorb light necessary for photosynthesis and protect against oxidative stress resulting from excessive sunlight and other environmental stressors.
These same antioxidant and light-absorbing properties are also central to the benefits we derive from carotenoid-rich foods and supplements. Numerous studies link a high intake of carotenoids in foods and supplements with a reduced risk of vision and skin problems, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, and cognitive decline.
How Carotenoids Enhance Your Health
More than 750 carotenoids have been identified, but the most abundant in the human diet are beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
One of carotenoids’ main “claims to fame” is that several of them are converted in the body to vitamin A, a fat-soluble antioxidant and an essential nutrient required for normal growth and development, vision, and immune function. These carotenoids, called provitamin A, include beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin.
Yet, carotenoids have benefits independent of provitamin A activity. Lycopene and astaxanthin are considered to be among the most potent antioxidants, helping to quench free radicals and reducing inflammation. Carotenoids play a role in immunity as well. Beta-carotene, for example, has been shown to improve markers of immune function.
Plus, other carotenoids—including lutein and zeaxanthin, which are particularly abundant in the eyes—absorb blue light and other potentially harmful high-energy wavelengths of light.
Carotenoids for Skin, Heart, Brain & More
A robust intake of carotenoids supports many aspects of overall health. Population studies and clinical trials also reveal benefits of both dietary and supplemental carotenoids for specific health challenges, including:
- Skin damage: Beta-carotene, astaxanthin, lutein, and lycopene accumulate in the skin, absorb damaging UV radiation and blue light, and protect against oxidative damage. Some studies suggest that supplemental carotenoids may slow and even reverse signs of skin aging.
- Cardiovascular disease: The ongoing NHANES nutritional survey found the blood level of total carotenoids to be inversely related to levels of homocysteine and C-reactive protein, which are established cardiovascular risk factors. The survey also linked lutein/zeaxanthin concentrations with healthier cholesterol levels. Plus, higher lutein levels have been associated with a lower risk of stroke and coronary artery disease.
- Cognitive decline: A 2018 study found that older people who took lutein and zeaxanthin supplements for 12 months had improvements on tests of cognitive function.
- Lung cancer: Several large studies have linked a higher consumption and/or blood level of carotenoids with a reduced risk of lung cancer. Note that some studies suggest that supplemental beta-carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers—but only in smokers.
- Prostate cancer: The often-overlooked carotenoid lycopene is an unsung hero when it comes to prostate cancer. Studies have found correlations between a lycopene-rich diet and a reduced risk of prostate cancer, especially aggressive cancer. Lycopene supplements may provide benefits as well.
Vision-Enhancing Carotenoids: Lutein & Zeaxanthin
I want to give a special call-out to lutein and zeaxanthin. These two carotenoids collect in the macula—an area in the retina responsible for central, color, and detailed vision—and filter out damaging blue light. The more lutein and zeaxanthin, the denser the macular pigment optical density (MPOD) and the greater the protection for your eyes. A dense, robust MPOD can absorb 90% of blue light!
The landmark AREDS2 study underscored the importance of these carotenoids for macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of vision loss in older people. Supplements containing lutein and zeaxanthin, along with vitamins C and E, zinc, and copper, reduced the rate of advanced age-related macular degeneration by about 25%.
These carotenoids also reduce eye strain and fatigue related to screen time, which bombards the eyes with blue light. Other studies suggest benefits for delaying the development and progression of cataracts and diabetic retinopathy as well.
Foods High in Carotenoids
The most abundant carotenoids in our diet and some of the best sources include:
- Lycopene: Tomatoes (especially tomato paste, puree, soup, and juice) and watermelon
- Lutein & zeaxanthin: Cooked spinach, kale, turnip greens, collards, and other leafy greens, avocados, and egg yolks
- Provitamin A carotenoids (beta- & alpha-carotene & beta-cryptoxanthin): Carrots (juiced and cooked), pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and cooked spinach, kale, and collards
- Astaxanthin: Shrimp, salmon, and trout (This carotenoid is produced by microalgae and makes its way up the marine food chain.)
Unlike many phytonutrients, carotenoids’ nutritional value dramatically improves with chopping, pureeing, and especially cooking, as processing releases them from the plant matrix and increases absorption in the intestines.
Raw salads are great, but make sure you include cooked vegetables as well. And remember, because carotenoids are fat-soluble, eating them with a little fat or oil (3–5 g, or about a teaspoon) is necessary for optimal absorption.
Should You Take Carotenoid Supplements?
The average daily dietary intake of carotenoids is shockingly low. For lutein/zeaxanthin, it’s just 1–3 mg, lycopene 2 mg, and beta-carotene less than 2 mg. In my opinion, the decision to take supplemental carotenoids is a no-brainer.
- Beta-carotene: Start with a daily multivitamin that contains 4,000–5,000 mcg RAE of natural beta-carotene, which is often listed under vitamin A on supplement labels.
- Lutein/zeaxanthin: Add 20–40 mg of supplemental lutein and 2–4 mg zeaxanthin per day, especially if you’re concerned about your eyes.
- Lycopene: Lycopene is often included in supplements for prostate health. The suggested dose is 6 mg once or twice a day.
- Astaxanthin: Consider astaxanthin 6–12 mg per day for overall antioxidant support.
Take these supplements with meals containing fat for optimal absorption.
Carotenoids are exceptionally safe. Although vitamin A can be toxic in excessive amounts, carotenoids are only converted to vitamin A when levels are low, so toxicity is not an issue. As noted above, concerns have been raised about supplemental beta-carotene for smokers. However, careful analysis of the research gives it a thumbs-up for everyone else.