Carotenoids: definition, structure and classification

Carotenoids: contents in brief

What are carotenoids?

Carotenoids
Fig. 1 – Carrots

Carotenoids are soluble-fat pigments found throughout nature.
Carotenoids were discovered during the 19th century.
In 1831 Wachen proposed the term “carotene” for a pigment crystallized from carrot roots.
Berzelius called the more polar yellow pigments extracted from autumn leaves “xanthophylls” (originally phylloxanthins), from Greek words xanthos, meaning yellow, and phyllon, meaning leaf.
Tswett separated many pigments and called them “carotenoids.”

They occur in the chromoplasts of plants and some other photosynthetic organisms such as algae and in some types of fungi and bacteria; they are also produced by some invertebrates (Aphids).
There are more than 750 different carotenoids ranging in color from red (such as lycopene), to orange (such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and gamma-carotene) or yellow (such as lutein, alfa-cryptoxanthin or violaxanthin); more than 100 have been found in fruits and vegetables.
In some green plants and in their parts, generally the darker the green color, the higher the carotenoid content: for example, carotenoid content in pale green cabbage is less than 1% of that in dark green one.
Fruit carotenoids are very different, and those present in ripe fruits may be different from those present in unripe fruits.
They also occur extensively in microorganisms and animals.
In plants, microorganism and animals carotenoids have diverse and important functions and actions.

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Chemical structure of carotenoids

Carotenoids are a class of hydrocarbon compounds consisting of 40 carbon atoms (tetraterpenes), with a structure characterized by an extensive conjugated double-bond system that determines the color (it serves as a light-absorbing chromophore): as the number of conjugated double-bond increases, color changes from pale yellow, to orange, to red.
In nature, they exist primarily in the more stable all-trans isomeric configuration, even though small amounts of cis isomers do occur too (they can be produced from all-trans forms also during processing).
Traditionally, carotenoids have been given trivial names derived from the biological source from which they are extracted. However, a semisystematic scheme exists: it allows carotenoids to be named in a way that describes and defines their structure.

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Classification of carotenoids

Depending on the presence or absence of oxygen in the molecule, they can be divided into:

  • xanthophylls, which contain oxygen, such as:

Antheraxanthin
Astaxanthin (red)
Auroxanthin
Bixin, E160b
Canthaxanthin (red), E161g
Capsanthin, E160c
Capsorubin, E160c
beta-Carotene-5,6-epoxide
alfa-Cryptoxanthin (yellow)
beta-Cryptoxanthin (orange)
Crocetin
Lutein (yellow), E161b
Lutein-5,6-epoxide or taraxanthin
Luteoxanthin
Lycophyll
Lycoxanthin
Neoxanthin
Rubixanthin
Tunaxanthin
Violaxanthin (yellow)
Zeaxanthin (yellow-orange)
Zeinoxanthin

  • carotenes, which lack oxygen, as such:

alfa-Carotene (orange)
beta-Carotene (orange), E160a
delta-Carotene
gamma-Carotene (orange)
Lycopene (red), E160d
Neurosporene
Phytoene (colorless)
Phytofluene
alfa-Zeacarotene
beta-Zeacarotene
zeta-Carotene

Depending on chemical structure they can be divided into:

  • acyclic carotenes: formed by a linear carbon chain such as:

zeta-Carotene
Phytoene (colorless)
Lycopene (red), E160d
Neurosporene
Phytofluene

  • cyclic carotenes: containing one or two cyclic structures such as:

alfa-Carotene (orange)
beta-Carotene (orange), E160a
gamma-Carotene (orange)
delta-Carotene
alfa-Zeacarotene
beta-Zeacarotene

  • hydroxycarotenoids (or carotenols): containing at least an hydroxyl group (xanthophylls) such as:

alfa-Cryptoxanthin (yellow)
beta-Cryptoxanthin (orange)
Lutein (yellow), E161b
Lycofill
Lycoxanthin
Rubixanthin
Zeaxanthin (yellow-orange)
Zeinoxanthin

  • epoxycarotenoids: containing at least an epoxic group (xanthophylls) such as:

Antheraxanthin
Auroxanthin
beta-Carotene-5,6-epoxide
Lutein-5,6-epoxide
Luteoxanthin
Neoxanthin
Violaxanthin (yellow)

  • uncommon or species-specific carotenoids such as:

Bixin, E160b
Capsanthin, E160c
Capsorubin, E160c
Crocetin

Note: although green leaves contain unesterified hydroxycarotenoids, most carotenols in ripe fruits are esterified with fatty acids. However, those of some fruits, particularly those that remain green when ripe (example kiwi fruit) undergo no or limited esterification.

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Apocarotenoids

Apocarotenoids are a class of carotenoids containing less than 40 carbon atoms, very widespread in nature and with extremely different structures.
They derive from 40 carbon atom carotenoids by oxidative cleavage that can occurs through non-specific mechanisms, such as photo-oxidation, or through the action of specific enzymes (these enzymatic activities, identified in plants, animals and microorganisms, are collectively referred to as carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases).
Some of the most well-known

  • vitamin A
  • abscisic acid
  • bixin, E160b
  • crocetin
  • trans-β-apo-8′-carotenal, E160e

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References

Boileau A.C., Merchen N.R., Wasson K., Atkinson C.A. and Erdman Jr J.W. cis-Lycopene is more bioavailable than trans-lycopene in vitro and in vivo in lymph-cannulated ferrets. J Nutr 1999;129:1176-1181 [Abstract]

de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Engelmann N.J., Clinton S.K., and Erdman Jr J.W. Nutritional aspects of phytoene and phytofluene,carotenoid precursors to lycopene. Adv Nutr 2011:2;51-61. doi:10.3945/​an.110.000075

Olempska-Beer Z. Lycopene (synthetic): chemical and technical assessment (CTA). Office of Food Additive Safety, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. College Park, Maryland, USA [PDF]

Periago M.J., Bravo S., García-Alonso F.J., and Rincón F. Detection of key factors affecting lycopene in vitro accessibility. J Agr Food Chem 2013;61(16):3859-3867. doi:10.1021/jf3052994

Ross A.B., Thuy Vuong L., Ruckle J., Synal H.A., Schulze-König T., Wertz K., Rümbeli R., Liberman R.G., Skipper P.L., Tannenbaum S.R., Bourgeois A., Guy P.A., Enslen M., Nielsen I.L.F., Kochhar S., Richelle M., Fay L.B., and Williamson G. Lycopene bioavailability and metabolism in humans: an accelerator mass spectrometry study. Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93:1263-73. doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.008375

Wang X-D. Lycopene metabolism and its biological significance. Am J Clin Nutr 2012:96;1214S-1222S. doi:10.3945/​ajcn.111.032359


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