What to Know About Dietary Carotenoids

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on July 14, 2023
3 min read

Carotenoids are one reason that doctors tell you to get a variety of colors in your diet. These nutrients provide rich pigments to fruits and vegetables and are necessary for a well-balanced diet.

There are more than 600 known types of carotenoids found in plants and food, and they’re responsible for the vibrant yellow, orange, and red pigments in your fruits and vegetables. As a dietary nutrient, they act as antioxidants, and many of them are converted to vitamin A during the digestive process. 

Carotenoids are fat-soluble, which means your body absorbs their nutrients best with fat. The benefits of carotenoids actually increase when you chop and cook the fruits and vegetables they come in.

The most common carotenoids are:

  • Alpha carotene
  • Beta carotene
  • Beta cryptoxanthin
  • Lutein
  • Lycopene‌
  • Zeaxanthin

Fruits and vegetables that are rich in dietary carotenoids include:

  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Mangoes
  • Oranges
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon
  • Yams

Carotenoids fall into two main categories: xanthophylls and carotenes. Both are antioxidants, but not all break down into vitamin A.

Xanthophylls are usually yellow and contain lots of oxygen. This type of dietary carotenoid protects your eyes from too much sunlight and promotes eye health. Lutein and zeaxanthin are both xanthophylls. Foods that contain xanthophyll carotenoids include:

  • Avocado
  • Corn
  • Egg yolks
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Summer squash
  • Pumpkin‌
  • Yellow-fleshed fruits

Carotenes are often orange and don’t contain oxygen. Beta carotene and lycopene are both considered carotenoids, and they’re responsible for helping plants grow. Foods that contain carotene carotenoids include:

  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Papaya
  • Pumpkin
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tangerines
  • Tomatoe‌s
  • Winter squash

As you go through your day, your body faces threats ⁠— viruses, infections, chemicals and cigarette smoke, to name a few. These threats are also called free radicals, and at very high levels, they damage your cells at a genetic level.

Extensive damage to your cells can leave you at a greater risk for developing chronic health conditions.

When you maintain a diet rich in antioxidants, like those found in dietary carotenoids, you protect your cells from free radical damage. Keep in mind that antioxidants are not a cure-all. Antioxidant-rich foods are often marketed as if they can cure or prevent many health conditions, but they cannot work alone.

Just as the antioxidants in carotenoids are best absorbed with fats, many types of antioxidant-rich foods often require other vitamins and minerals for proper absorption. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is a great way to ensure you stay healthy.

For example, vitamin C has antioxidant properties. One cup of strawberries has around 80 milligrams of vitamin C and contains antioxidants. If you take vitamin C in the form of a vitamin or supplement, it doesn’t offer the same antioxidants as a serving of strawberries.

Vitamin A may be called retinol or retinoic acid. Vitamin A is important for healthy:

  • Cell division
  • Growth
  • Immunity
  • Reproduction
  • Vision

Foods that are rich in vitamin A include:

  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Dairy
  • Leafy greens like spinach
  • Liver

If you don’t get enough vitamin A in your diet, you may need to take a multivitamin or supplement. The general recommendation for men is 900 micrograms of vitamin A each day and 700 micrograms daily for women.

Vitamin A is shown to help with:

  • Skin care: Vitamin A is often used topically to treat wrinkles, splotches, and acne. However, it is important to note that taking vitamin A orally doesn’t appear to have an impact on these skin conditions.
  • Vision: Vitamin A reduces your risk for aging-related macular degeneration by 25% when the supplements or food contain beta-carotene.
  • Measles: If you or your child is diagnosed with measles, vitamin A can reduce the severity of the symptoms.
  • Vitamin A deficiency – While it isn’t common, a vitamin A deficiency can lead to chronic dry eye or anemia. If you have a natural vitamin A deficiency, regularly getting Vitamin A is important for maintaining your overall health.