Some nutrition facts are fairly common knowledge. For example, many people are aware that beta-carotene is what accounts for the orange color in carrots and other similarly hued fruits and vegetables. But beta-carotene is only one of a class of nutrients called the carotenoids, all of which are crucial to health.
The carotenoids—which include lycopene, astaxanthin and the team of lutein and zeaxanthin—have several points in common. They share vivid red, orange and yellow hues, which explains why they’re found in foods such as sweet potatoes and tomatoes. (The carotenoid content of foods such as kale and spinach is hidden by the green of chlorophyll.) The carotenoids function as antioxidants, substances that can neutralize toxic molecules called free radicals. In addition, each member of this nutrient family serves specific functions within the body.
Beta-carotene has long been recognized as the precursor to vitamin A, a nutrient that supports immune, eye and skin health. Research suggests that beta-carotene itself may protect skin against the effects of aging (Dermatology 8/10).
Lutein and its sister compound zeaxanthin are known for their ability to help forestall blindness by protecting the retina against sun damage. These nutrients appear to play a similar role in the skin. Italian scientists found that lutein and zeaxanthin helped protect skin against the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. Improvements were also seen in hydration and elasticity, factors that help skin retain its youthful glow (Journal of Skin Pharmacology and Physiology 6/07).
In addition, lutein may promote cardiovascular well-being. In atherosclerosis, artery walls become thicker and stiffer; higher lutein levels have been linked with reduced arterial thickness. By contrast, low levels of lutein and zeaxanthin have been found in people with coronary artery disease (Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases 7/07).
The substance that puts the red in tomatoes, lycopene is known best for its links to prostate health. It has been found to reduce the proliferation and growth of prostate cancer cells and to inhibit genetic activity that promotes such growth (Chinese Medical Journal 8/10). Lycopene may also enhance male fertility by reducing oxidative stress (American Journal of Reproductive Immunology 1/31/11 online).
Like lutein, lycopene appears to help the heart by making arteries less stiff. It has also been associated with reduced lung inflammation in mice, indicating a link between lycopene and reduced asthma risk (The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 1/11).
Unlike its fellow carotenoids, astaxanthin is found primarily in marine creatures—it’s what gives shrimp and crabs their reddish hues when cooked. Like the others, though, astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant; it also helps control inflammation. This has made it useful to fitness enthusiasts who want to reduce joint and muscle soreness after exercise. Evidence suggests that astaxanthin may improve indicators of cardiovascular health as well (Pharmacological Research 1/11).
Let the carotenoids introduce a little color—and a lot of health—into your life.