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Jan. 9, 2001 (Washington) -- A scientific panel that sets nutrition standards has discovered something that could change the way we eat: Dark-colored fruits and vegetables contain only half the vitamin A previously thought. That means strict vegetarians may need to consume more carrots, green asparagus, or even mangoes and papaya.

"What we're saying is that people who depend on fruits and vegetables for their vitamin A ... [have] to be more concerned about their choice of fruits or vegetables," Robert Russell, MD, tells WebMD. Russell is chair of the food and nutrition board at the Institute of Medicine, a part of the National Academy of Sciences that offers advice to government agencies.

Over the past five years, the board has been setting standards for the vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy diet. The report, released Tuesday, reviews a number of key nutrients in an effort to establish what are called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for substances ranging from vitamin A to iron. These scientifically calibrated amounts are a more informative form of the commonly known Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs).

Also, for the first time, the board set "tolerable upper intake levels." Known as ULs, they represent the largest safe amount a person can take. For vitamin A, the UL is 3,000 mcg per day. The RDA is 900 mcg for men and 700 for women -- which is a bit less than previously recommended. However, less than 5% of the U.S. population runs the risk of not getting enough vitamin A, Russell says.

Using a new measuring technique, the panel determined that fruits and green leafy vegetables contain only half the anticipated carotenoids that are converted into vitamin A. That means one new unit of vitamin A amounts to only six molecules of carotenoid instead of 12.

"That doesn't mean that fruit and vegetable consumption must double," Russell says. Among the alternatives, he says, are liver, fish rich in oil, and dairy products. Also, he says, a standard regimen of five servings of fruits and vegetables will suffice, or half-a-cup of cooked carrots.

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