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 and antioxidant activity
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
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.
Provitamin A activity
Relative activity (%)
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. doi:10.1046/j.1523-5408.2002.00004.x
- 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;93:1263-1273. doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.008375