Human health and carotenoids

Benefits of carotenoids for human health

Carotenoids belong to the category of bioactive compounds taken up with diet, that is, molecules able to provide protection against many diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and macular degeneration. They are also important for the proper functioning of the immune system.
Among the mechanisms that seem to be at the basis of their human health-promoting effects have been reported (Olson, 1999, see References):

  • the capability to quench singlet oxygen (see above);
  • the scavenging of peroxyl radicals and reactive nitrogen species;
  • the modulation of carcinogen metabolism;
  • the inhibition of cell proliferation;
  • the enhancement of the immune response;
  • a filtering action of blue light;
  • the enhancement of cell differentiation;
  • stimulation of cell-to-cell communication

Carotenoids, antioxidant activity and human health

Human Health and Carotenoids
Fig. 1 – Free Radical

Carotenoids, with the adaptation of organisms to aerobic environment, and therefore to the presence of oxygen, have offered protection against oxidative damage from free radicals, particularly by singlet oxygen, a powerful oxidizing agent (see also below).
Carotenoids stabilize singlet oxygen acting both chemical and physical point of view:

  • chemical action involves the union between the two molecules;
  • in physical action, the radical transfers its excitation energy to the carotenoid. The result is a low energy free radical and an excited carotenoid; later, the energy acquired by the carotenoid is released as heat to the environment, and the molecule, that remains intact, is ready to carry out another cycle of stabilization of singlet oxygen, and so on.

The capability of carotenoids to quench singlet oxygen is due to the conjugated double-bond system present in the molecule, and the maximum protection is given by those molecules that have nine or more double bonds (moreover, the presence of oxygen in the molecule, as in xanthophylls, seems to have a role).
Carotenoids are involved not only in singlet oxygen quenching, but also in the scavenging of other reactive species both of oxygen, as peroxyl radicals (therefore contributing to the reduction of lipid peroxidation) and nitrogen. These reactive molecules are generated during the aerobic metabolism but also in the pathological processes.

Lycopene, xanthophylls and human health

Lycopene, a carotene, canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, two xanthophylls present in foods of animal origin, are better antioxidants than beta-carotene but also than zeaxanthin that, with lutein, is involved in prevention of age-related macular degeneration.
Lycopene, in addition to act on oxygen free radicals, acts as antioxidant also on the radicals of vitamin C and vitamin E, that are generated during the antioxidant processes in which these vitamins are involved, “repairing them”.
Finally, lycopene exerts its antioxidant action also indirectly, inducing the synthesis of enzymes involved in the protection against the action of oxygen free radicals and other electrophilic species; these enzymes are quinone reductase, glutathione S-transferase and superoxide dismutase (they are part of the enzymatic antioxidant system).

Vitamin A and human health

Human Health and Vitamin A
Fig. 2 – Provitamin A Activity

Vitamin A, whose deficiency affects annually more than 100 million children worldwide, causing more than a million deaths and half million cases of blindness, is a well-known carotenoid derivative with many biological actions, being essential for reproduction, growth, vision, immune function and general human health.
In the human diet, the major sources of vitamin A are the preformed vitamin, which is found in foods of animal origins (meat, milk, eggs, etc), and provitamin A carotenoids, present in fruits and vegetables. In economically deprived countries, fruits and vegetables are the main source of vitamin A being less expensive than food of animal origin.
Of the more than 750 different carotenoids identified in natural sources, only about 50 have provitamin A activity, and among these, beta-carotene (precisely, all-trans-beta-carotene isomer) is the main precursor of the vitamin A.
Among the other carotenoids precursors of vitamin A, alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-cryptoxanthin, and beta-carotene-5,6-epoxide have about half the bioactivity of beta-carotene.
Spinach, carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes (yellow) are example of vegetables rich in beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids.
Acyclic carotenes, such as lycopene (the main carotenoid in the human diet), and xanthophylls, except those mentioned above (beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-cryptoxanthin, and beta-carotene-5,6-epoxide), cannot be converted to vitamin A.


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

Johnson E.J. The role of carotenoids in human health. Nutr Clin Care 2002;5(2):56-65 [Abstract]

Olson, J.A. 1999. Carotenoids. p. 525-541. In: Shils M.E., Olson J.A., Shike M., Ross A.C. “Modern nutrition in health and disease” 9th ed., by Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1999

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 [Abstract]

Functions of carotenoids in plants and foods

Through the course of evolution, carotenoids, thank to their unique physical and chemical properties, have proven to be highly versatile molecules, being able to perform many functions in many different organisms, like plants.

Carotenoids in photosynthesis

Carotenoids, in the early stages of the emergence of single-celled photosynthetic organisms, are probably been used for light harvesting at wavelengths different from those covered by chlorophyll. Therefore carotenoids, acting as light absorbing accessory pigments, have allowed to expand the range of solar radiation absorbed and so utilized for photosynthesis, energy that is then transferred to chlorophyll itself.
The major carotenoids involved in light harvesting, that accumulate in green plant tissues, are beta-carotene, lutein, neoxanthin, and violaxanthin, that absorb light energy in the 400- to 500-nm range.
Moreover, they protect chlorophyll from photooxidation (in humans, they may contribute to the protection of photo-oxidative damage caused by UV rays, thus acting as a endogenous photo-protective agents).

Carotenoids and autumn leaf color

Carotenoids and Plants: Autumn Leaf Color
Fig. 1 – Carotenoids and Autumn Leaf Color

Leaf color of deciduous plants in different seasons, green, yellow, orange or red, is due to the presence in them of natural pigments.
In spring and summer, the predominant pigment present in the leaf is chlorophyll, and therefore the color is green.
During the fall, the color changes from green to yellow, orange or red, depending on the type of plant: this is a consequence of the change, both qualitative and quantitative, in the pigment content.
In fact, as a result of the decrease of the temperature and daylight hours, the production of chlorophyll is interrupted and that already present is demolished into colorless metabolites. In this way the predominant pigments become carotenoids (yellow-orange), molecules much more stable than the chlorophyll, which remain in the leaf coloring it (it do not seem to be synthesized de novo), and anthocyanins (red-purple), which, unlike carotenoids, are not present during the growing season, but are synthesized in autumn, just before leaf fall. Therefore, it can be concluded that the red-purple color assumed from the leaves of certain plants is not a side effect of leaf senescence but results from anthocyanins de-novo synthesis.
Depending on the prevalence of carotenoids or anthocyanins, leaf color changes from green to yellow/orange, as in Ginkgo biloba (yellow), or red-purple as in some maples.

And plants with non green leaves?
Their color is not due to the absence of chlorophyll but the presence of very high amounts of other pigments, typically carotenoids and anthocyanins, that “cover” the chlorophyll, determining the color of the leaf.

Some functions of apocarotenoids in plants and foods

These oxygenated carotenoids, containing fewer than 40 carbon atoms, have many functions in plants and animals and are also important for the aroma and flavor of foods.
Some of their main functions include the following.

  • Apocarotenoids have significant roles in the response signals involved in the development and in the response to the environment (for example abscisic acid).
  • They can act as visual or volatile signals to attract pollinators.
  • They are important in the defense mechanisms of plants.
  • They have a role in regulating plant architecture.
  • An apocarotenal, trans-beta-apo-8′-carotenal, found in citrus fruits and spinach, with a low provitamin A activity, is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and is also a food additive (E160e) legalized by the European Commission for human consumption.
  • Apocarotenoids make an important contribution to the nutritional quality and flavor of many types of foods such as fruits, wine and tea. Two natural apocarotenoids, crocetin and bixina, have economic importance as they are used as pigments and aroma in foods.
  • Finally, a broad range of apocarotenals derive from oxidative reactions that occur in food processing; these molecules are intermediates in the formation of smaller molecules, important for the color and flavor of the food.

Archetti, M., Döring T.F., Hagen S.B., Hughes N.M., Leather S.R., Lee D.W., Lev-Yadun S., Manetas Y., Ougham H.J. Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach. Trends Ecol Evol 2009;24(3):166-73 [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

Maltodextrin, fructose and endurance sports

Carbohydrate ingestion can improve endurance capacity and performance.
The ingestion of different types of carbohydrates, which use different intestinal transporters, can:

  • increase total carbohydrate absorption;
  • increase exogenous carbohydrate oxidation;
  • and therefore improve performance.

Glucose and fructose

When a mixture of glucose and fructose is ingested (in the analyzed literature, respectively 1.2 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 1.8 g/min), there is less competition for intestinal absorption compared with the ingestion of an iso-energetic amount of glucose or fructose,  two different intestinal transporters being involved. Furthermore, fructose absorption is stimulated by the presence of glucose.

This can:

The combined ingestion of glucose and fructose allows to obtain exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rate around 1,26 g/min, therefore, higher than the rate reported with glucose alone (1g/min), also in high concentration.
The observed difference (+0,26 g/min) can be fully attributed to the oxidation of ingested fructose.

Sucrose and glucose

The ingestion of sucrose and glucose, in the same conditions of the ingestion of glucose and fructose (therefore, respectively 1.2 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 1.8 g/min), gives similar results.

Glucose, sucrose and fructose

Very high oxidation rates are found with a mixture of glucose, sucrose, and fructose (in the analyzed literature, respectively 1.2, 0.6 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 2.4 g/min; however, note the higher amounts of ingested carbohydrates).

Maltodextrin and fructose

Maltodextrin and Fructose: Oxidation of Ingested Carbohydrates
Fig. 1 – Oxidation of Ingested Carbohydrates

High oxidation rates are also observed with combinations of maltodextrin and fructose, in the same conditions of the ingestion of glucose plus fructose (therefore, respectively 1.2 and 0.6 g/min, ratio 2:1, for total carbohydrate intake rate to 1.8 g/min).

Such high oxidation rates can be achieved with carbohydrates ingested in a beverage, in a gel or in a low-fat, low protein, low-fiber energy bar.

The best combination of carbohydrates ingested during exercise seems to be the mixture of maltodextrin and fructose in a 2:1 ratio, in a 5% solution, and in a dose around 80-90 g/h.

  • This mixture has the best ratio between amount of ingested carbohydrates and their oxidation rate and it means that smaller amounts of carbohydrates remain in the stomach or gut reducing the risk of gastrointestinal complication/discomfort during prolonged exercise (see brackets grafa in the figure).
  • A solution containing a combination of multiple transportable carbohydrates and a carbohydrate content not exceeding 5% optimizes gastric emptying rate and improves fluid delivery.

Example of a 5% carbohydrate solution containing around 80-90 g of maltodextrin and fructose in a 2:1 rate; ingestion time around 1 h.


During prolonged exercise, when high exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates are needed, the ingestion of multiple transportable carbohydrates is preferred above that of large amounts of a single carbohydrate.
The best mixture seems to be maltodextrin and fructose, in a 2:1 ratio, in a 5% concentration solution, and at ingestion rate of around 80-90 g/h.


Burke L.M., Hawley J.A., Wong S.H.S., & Jeukendrup A. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J Sport Sci 2011;29:Sup1,S17-S27. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.585473

Jentjens R.L.P.G., Moseley L., Waring R.H., Harding L.K., and Jeukendrup A.E. Oxidation of combined ingestion of glucose and fructose during exercise. J Appl Physiol 2004:96;1277-1284. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00974.2003

Jentjens R.L.P.G., Venables M.C., and Jeukendrup A.E. Oxidation of exogenous glucose, sucrose, and maltose during prolonged cycling exercise. J Appl Physiol 2004:96;1285-1291. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01023.2003

Jeukendrup A.E. Carbohydrate feeding during exercise. Eur J Sport Sci 2008:2;77-86. doi:10.1080/17461390801918971

Jeukendrup A.E. Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling. J Sport Sci 2011:29;sup1, S91-S99. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.610348