Carotenoids are pigment molecules, responsible for the bright yellow, oranges and reds that we see in many plants. The compounds play a key role in the health of plants and they’re relevant for humans as well.
That’s why this list looks at food sources of carotenoids. We highlight the best foods for getting these compounds, along with why you need them in the first place.
The featured items are all whole foods as well, ones that offer many other nutrients. They’re a great way to promote your health and to make your diet more interesting!
In a Hurry? Skip Straight to the Foods!
Why Do You Need Carotenoids?
The term ‘carotenoids’ refers to a class of compounds. More than 600 unique carotenoids have been identified and many research studies have focused on them (1).
Specific molecules include beta-carotene and lycopene (both carotenes), along with zeaxanthin and lutein (both xanthophylls) (2,3). They’re all antioxidants and can have various other roles in the body as well. The site LiveScience offers more details about individual classes of carotenoids and their implications.
Carotenoids aren’t essential for health but they are valuable. They’ve been linked to various health benefits, including some powerful ones (4).
- Promoting eye health. Carotenoids may help protect the eyes, partly by absorbing blue light. Zeaxanthin and lutein have been strongly linked to this role, featuring in many different research studies (5,6). In fact, lutein is sometimes called ‘the eye vitamin’. It may reduce the risk of eye disease and even improve vision (7,8).
- Improves skin health. Animal studies suggest that lutein may protect against oxidation damage to the skin (9). This effect has been shown in tissue models as well (10) and there are multiple mechanisms for the outcomes (11).
- Lowers inflammation. Carotenoids have an anti-inflammatory role as well (12). This effect may help lower disease risk, protect the heart and promote overall health (13).
- Improves blood sugar. Some carotenoids may help to manage blood sugar levels, especially when used in conjunction with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (14).
- Decreases cancer risk. The carotenoid lycopene may help lower cancer risk, although the outcomes of studies have been mixed (15,16).
- Helps protect the heart. Researchers suggest that antioxidants from plants can improve many heart disease risk factors. More information is needed about the link between these outcomes and specific compounds. But, it’s clear that focusing on fruits and vegetables offers many health benefits (17,18).
- May lengthen life. One study also found that high levels of alpha-carotene (another carotenoid) were associated with a decreased risk of death (19).
The Best Food Sources of Carotenoids
There are many good options for carotenoids. Many of these will be obvious. But, there are a few surprises on the list as well.
Butternut Squash or Winter Squash
These two types of squash are particularly significant as ways to get your carotenoids. They make the top of many lists for this reason alone.
They’re particularly great in the cooler months too, creating comforting meals.
Pumpkins are an incredibly common addition to the diet – but we often ignore their health benefits. They do contain many important compounds, including beta-carotene. The overall levels are a little lower than winter and butternut squash. But, pumpkin is still a great option for carotenoids.
Besides that, pumpkins are easy to include in the diet and there are many amazing recipes out there.
Carotenoids are also found in pumpkin seeds and in pumpkin seed oil (22).
Carrots are an obvious choice of carotenoids and one of the most commonly recommended sources. They’re especially relevant for beta-carotene, with higher levels than most other foods.
The beta-carotene alone is a reason to eat carrots regularly. Carrots are versatile too. You can eat them raw, include them in a salad or cook them. Carrot juice is another effective option and can be more convenient.
Regardless of how you’re eating them, you’re getting the beta-carotene that you need.
You’ll be pleased to know that sweet potatoes also offer carotenoids. Beta-carotene is a particularly significant one. Other carotenoids are present too (23). Many of these carotenoids remain at significant levels even when the sweet potato is boiled or fried (24).
Sweet potatoes have even been proposed as a way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in developing countries (25).
Tomatoes are another interesting carotenoid source. In this case, the main carotenoid is lycopene. Lycopene is a less common carotenoid – making tomatoes especially relevant in your diet.
Many people already get lycopene in their diet from meals like pizza and pasta, which often heavily rely on tomatoes (26). But, of course, you’ll get more health benefits by focusing on versions that you make yourself, ones that don’t use processed ingredients.
Citrus Fruits (including tangerines, oranges and grapefruit)
Citrus fruits aren’t as powerful for carotenoids as some of the other items on this list. But, they’re still a good choice.
If nothing else, they’re incredibly easy to add to your diet. You can simply take an orange with you for a fast snack or perhaps include orange segments to liven up a salad.
Just be careful with orange juice. The juice may still be a good source of carotenoids but you end up with a large amount of sugar and little fiber. This makes it easy to consume too much. When that happens, the negative implications from the sugar may outweigh any benefits.
If you’re looking for a less sweet source of carotenoids, red peppers (also called capsicums) can work well. As with citrus fruit, these aren’t especially high in carotenoids – but they do still work well.
One advantage is that red peppers can be added to many meals. They’re a simple ingredient to use and are an extra burst of flavor.
Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
These greens are particularly critical as a source of lutein and zeaxanthin. This makes them critical for promoting eye health. For example, the list below shows levels of these two compounds in some key green vegetables (27 – totals are given per 100 grams).
- Kale (raw): 39.55 mg
- Kale (boiled, drained): 15.80 mg
- Turnip Greens (boiled, drained): 8.44 mg
- Collards (boiled, drained): 7.43 mg
- Spinach (boiled, drained): 7.04 mg
- Spinach (raw): 11.94 mg
- Broccoli (boiled, drained): 2.23 mg
Other sources of carotenoids do still contain lutein and zeaxanthin, but the levels are typically lower.
These levels are lower than what you find in dark leafy greens. Still, cruciferous vegetables have their own combination of nutrients. They’re also versatile.
These foods are the main ways that you can add carotenoids into your diet. But, there are plenty of other sources too.
To put it simply, most foods that are yellow, orange or red will contain at least some carotenoids. Many green ones will as well. Some other examples include the following:
What is the Ideal Amount?
Carotenoids aren’t considered an essential nutrient – so there’s no specific amount you should be taking daily (31,32). Carotenoids do convert to vitamin A and there is an RDA for that (around 700 to 900 mcg for adults). But, this isn’t an accurate guide. The advantages of carotenoids also extend beyond any vitamin A implications.
Besides, we’re not talking about a single compound. Instead, carotenoids are a class of compounds. This means you shouldn’t be aiming for a specific dose.
The best approach is to focus on a range of different carotenoid food sources. Doing so will provide the most possible health benefits and a wide range of nutrients.
Which Foods are the Most Powerful?
With nutrients like oleic acid, calcium or vitamin C, it’s easy to recommend a few particularly significant foods. But, carotenoids are different. The class includes multiple compounds and they all have specific health benefits.
Some foods will be a particularly good source of a particular carotenoid and a poor source of some others. For example, carrots are often popular for their beta-carotene content, while tomatoes offer significant levels of lycopene.
This is another reason for varying up which foods you consume.
How Should You Eat The Foods?
The best way to take advantage of carotenoids is simply to add them into your diet. But, there is one important consideration – fat.
Like many compounds, carotenoids are best absorbed if they’re consumed along with fat (33). The most practical way to do this is to simply use the foods as part of a larger meal.
- For example, most recipes that rely on pumpkin or winter squash probably have some fat-containing ingredients.
- Likewise, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and carrots are often used as a side to a main meal.
You could potentially turn to a smoothie as well. Smoothies can be an easy way to add a range of foods into your diet, including sources of carotenoids and fats. You can also rely on nutrient-packed ingredients, like spirulina, wheatgrass or whey protein powder, for an additional health boost.
The single best way to promote health is to eat a wide range of whole foods, with a strong emphasis on plants. Meat still has health advantages, of course, but plants contain a vast array of beneficial compounds. Other examples include anthocyanins, polyphenols and oleic acid – not to mention all of the vitamins and minerals present.
It’s also important to choose a variety of colors and types. Each individual plant will have its own distribution of compounds. For example, pumpkin, kale, avocados and pomegranates are all powerful for health. But, they are also very different from one another.
You can sometimes find supplements that contain carotenoids. But, this generally isn’t recommended. As Dr. Axe explains, evidence about this type of supplementation is mixed. Doing so may even harm your health, rather than offering benefits. The same is true for antioxidant supplementation.
In contrast, focusing on whole foods offers reliable benefits for health. The foods from this list are a great place to begin.
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