Carotenes are pigments synthesized by plants and found only in fruits and vegetables, especially carrots and other bright colored veggies like tomatoes, cantalope and peppers. There are currently about 600 known forms of naturally occurring carotenoids. Within the carotene family, beta carotene and secondly, lutein, are the most well known.
While beta carotene is by far the most familiar, all 600 naturally occurring carotenoids can be labeled as Vitamin A on a food label although only a fraction of these are present in the Western diet.
This labeling fiasco allows cans of tomato soup, bags of broccoli florets, mixed vegetables and other processed foods containing carotenoids to have Vitamin A prominently listed under the “Nutrition Facts” section of the label, when in reality, none is present.
This deceitful yet completely legal labeling practice also leads people earnestly following a plant-based diet to erroneously believe they are getting sufficient quantities of true Vitamin A, known as retinol, in their diet when in fact they are more than likely woefully deficient.
To make matters worse, many popular health and nutrition books on the market use beta carotene and Vitamin A interchangeably. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the very foods highest in true Vitamin A, butter, cream, egg yolks, and organ meats like liver, are some of the most reviled foods in modern society due to the misguided and dangerous lowfat mentality that continues to pervade the health community despite a complete and utter debunking from a variety of sources in recent years.
No wonder people are so confused about this important nutrient!
The truth is that carotenoids like beta carotene and lutein are completely different from Vitamin A!
Conversion of Beta Carotene to Vitamin A is Inefficient at Best
Supporters of misleading Vitamin A labeling regulations argue that the human body has the ability to convert carotenes to true Vitamin A with beta carotene the easiest of all to make the transformation.
While this is true, the biological conditions under which this occurs must be optimal meaning the person must be in excellent health with a highly efficient digestive system.
Who today has excellent digestive health?
Not many. In fact, if a person has had even a single course of antibiotics or been on The Pill, digestive health is likely far from optimal due to decimation of beneficial gut bacteria and the consequent imbalances that take, at best, years of recovery.
How Carotenes Transform to Vitamin A
Conversion of carotenes to Vitamin A takes place in the upper intestinal tract in the presence of bile salts and fat-splitting enzymes. While early studies on this biological process suggested a 4:1 ratio of beta carotene to Vitamin A conversion, later studies revised this to 6:1 or perhaps even higher.
If a meal is lowfat, however, not much bile is going to reach the intestinal tract further worsening the conversion ratio of carotenes to Vitamin A. I discovered this nutritional truth firsthand when transitioning my first child onto solid food some years ago. He loved sweet potatoes, which are high in beta carotene. Strangely enough, he developed a condition called carotenaemia, a benign condition where the skin takes on an orange coloration from inadequately metabolized beta carotene in the diet. If I had mashed his sweet potatoes in butter, it is likely he would have never developed this condition as he would have secreted the bile salts necessary to properly digest those carotenes! By the time my second child came along, I had learned that lesson and voila, no more carotenaemia although he loved sweet potatoes even more than my first baby (click here for the recipe).
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, there are a number of physical conditions that interfere or inhibit the conversion of carotenes in the diet (or from supplements) to true Vitamin A. These include the following:
- Being an infant or child
- Low thyroid function (thyroid requires more Vitamin A than other glands)
- Lowfat diet
- Intestinal parasites
- Pancreatic disease
- Celiac disease
The bottom line is that relying on plant foods or carotene supplements for Vitamin A is a very risky proposition indeed! Nothing wrong with enjoying your fruits and vegetables to the fullest, but be sure to include a dollop of butter on the veggies and some grassfed cream with the fruit like Traditional Cultures of old to ensure you get true Vitamin A with your meal and aren’t relying on an unpredictable conversion of carotenes that risks long term health and eyesight.
Vitamin A Benefits and Foods Highest in this Nutrient
Given the importance of true Vitamin A in the diet, it is best to get this nutrient in a form that is readily usable by the body with no conversion required. Here are but a few of the benefits of adequate Vitamin A in the diet particularly when pregnant:
- Proper fetal skeletal and palate formation (straight teeth with no orthodontics!)
- Resistance to and/or rapid recovery from infectious disease like measles
- Resolution of psoriasis
- Protective against bladder and lung cancer in men
- Reduces rates of anemia, diarrhea and blindness
- Resolution of night blindness
- Reduces incidence of malaria
- Proper modulation of the immune system
- Helps prevent decreased auditory function associated with age
- Helps inhibit the negative effects of phytic acid intake from wheat and other grains
- Reduces the risk of cataracts
Periods of stress, rigorous exercise and fevers deplete this critical nutrient even more making a daily dose of fermented cod liver oil, arguably the best and most easily obtained whole food which supplies Vitamin A in adequate amounts (sources), extremely important.
Other excellent sources are pastured butter, egg yolks, grassfed cream and milk, liver and shellfish. Note that supermarket butter would contain little Vitamin A as cows are only be able to produce this nutrient if grazing on green grass. This is why synthetic Vitamin A is added to pasteurized milk even if organic. Synthetic Vitamin A is not a good stand-in for true Vitamin A either as synthetic vitamins are the chemical mirror images of the real, natural versions and can cause imbalances over time.
Here is the statement on this from Organic Valley, a major producer of organic milk in the United States:
Vitamin A: We are required by law to add vitamin A to all of our skim/fat free/nonfat milk, lowfat (1%) milk, and reduced-fat (2%) milk. This is because vitamin A is “fat soluble,” so you lose vitamin A content when you reduce fat in fluid milk. We do add vitamin A to some of our whole milk products also. For confirmation, please reference the ingredient label.
Is Vitamin A Toxic?
Opponents of animal foods argue that Vitamin A in its true form is toxic and that carotenes are the safest way to obtain this nutrient as the body would convert on an as-needed basis.
However, this is not anthropologically accurate. Study of healthy, degenerative disease-free Ancestral Cultures demonstrates a preference for Vitamin A rich foods with plant foods containing carotenes consumed at a much lower rate. And, conversion of carotenes to Vitamin A seems to occur on a minimally needed basis, i.e. survival only, and not what is required for optimal health.
The truth is that only extremely high levels of Vitamin A (in excess of 100,000 IU/day) taken for long periods of time produce toxicity problems.This level of toxicity is nigh impossible to achieve with Vitamin A rich foods alone. The Weston A. Price Foundation reports that 100,000 IU of Vitamin A from food would consist of “3 tablespoons of high vitamin cod liver oil, 6 tablespoons of regular cod liver oil, two-and-one-half 100-gram servings of duck liver, about three 100-gram servings of beef liver, seven pounds of butter or 309 egg yolks.” An unlikely occurrence at best!
Even pregnant women have nothing to fear from Vitamin A contrary to the scare tactics about this critical vitamin in prenatal examination rooms. A 1999 study carried out in Rome, Italy found no birth defects among 120 infants whose mothers consumed an average of 50,000 IU of vitamin A per day, which is a very high amount! This followed a 1998 study from Switzerland which found Vitamin A safe for pregnant women at a dosage of 30,000 IU/day.
Bring on the pastured butter and cod liver oil!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
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Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.