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Beta-carotene is a carotenoid, one of a group of plant pigments known to have antioxidant and other effects. This is a substance in plants that's quickly converted into vitamin A inside the body. Beta-carotene is often thought of as a form of vitamin A itself. Having normal levels of vitamin A is key for good vision, strong immunity, and general health.

Why do people take beta-carotene?

Beta-carotene has become popular in part because it's an antioxidant -- a substance that may protect cells from damage. A number of studies show that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables that are rich in beta-carotene and other vitamins and minerals have a lower risk of some cancers and heart disease. However, so far studies have not found that beta-carotene supplements have the same health benefits as foods.

Beta-carotene supplements may help people with specific health problems. Supplements might be used in someone with a clear vitamin A deficiency. They also might help those with the genetic condition erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP). Both conditions are rare.

How much beta-carotene should you take?

While there is a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A, there is no RDA for beta-carotene specifically. Studies have used dosages ranging between 15 and 180 milligrams a day.

There is no set tolerable upper intake level (UL) for beta-carotene. However, high doses or long-term use may be dangerous.

Many experts recommend a combination of supplemental carotenoids ( lutein, carotenes, zeaxanthine, lycopene, etc), rather than simply beta-carotene. The correct dose of mixed carotenoids for temporary or long-term use is unclear.

Can you get beta-carotene naturally from foods?

The American Heart Association suggests that you get beta-carotene (and other antioxidants) from food rather than supplements. Good food sources of beta-carotene include:

  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash
  • Spinach and kale
  • Fruits like cantaloupe and apricots

Beta-carotene levels are highest in fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen and canned varieties generally have less.

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