When you hear the word carotenoid or beta carotene, you probably think of carrots. And indeed, carrots are one of the vegetables that are very high in carotenoids. But there’s a rainbow of other colored vegetables that also make this healthy list.
Carotenoids are a class of hundreds of naturally occurring pigments that include beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin. The colorful carotenoid molecules are the sources of the yellow, orange, and red colors of many plants.
Studies have shown that consumption of foods that are high in carotenoids are associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer, improved visual function, effective absorption of up to 90 percent dangerous blue UV light in the macula and a slowing of age related macular degeneration.
“Carotenoids are found in most fruits and vegetables with the exception of some root vegetables. There exists over 500 different types of carotenoids in nature, but only about 30–40 are found within human sera with lutein, lycopene, and betacarotene tending to be the most abundant depending on diet composition. Because humans do not synthesize carotenoids, all carotenoids found within tissue must originate from the diet (or related sources like human milk or supplements).
The richest sources of LZ within the diet are dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale that can contain 75–150 μg per gram of prepared food. Intermediate sources like broccoli, peas, maize, and lettuce can contain 10–30 μg per gram, and other sources like snap beans, carrots, and oranges tend to have less than 10 μg per gram. Animal products like eggs and chicken skin can contain variable but significant amounts of LZ especially when marigolds are added to chicken feed to improve yolk or skin coloration.” Source.
High Carotenoid Fruits and Vegetables
Avocado — “Carotenoids and chlorophylls identified in the skin, flesh, and oil were lutein, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, neoxanthin, violaxanthin, zeaxanthin, antheraxanthin, chlorophylls a and b, and pheophytins a and b with the highest concentrations of all pigments in the skin.” Source.
Cantaloupe — “Researchers have recently measured the carotenoid contents of six different California-grown cantaloupe hybrids and discovered that their beta-carotene content can reach levels as high as 3,138 micrograms (per 100 grams of fresh weight).” Source.
Carrots — “Four major carotenoids were identified and quantified by use of HPLC methods. High β-carotene orange carrots were found to contain the greatest concentration of total carotenoids. Except for the white, all the carrots are a significant source of bioavailable carotenoids.” Source.
Just half a cup of raw carrots provides 184 percent of the adult recommended daily intake of Vitamin A in the form of its precursor, beta-carotene. Learn more about carrots.
Collards — Collard greens are packed with pro-vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), with one ounce of cooked and drained collard greens delivering a whopping 45% of the Daily Value for pro-vitamin A. Source.
Dandelion Greens — “Wild green vegetables contained high concentrations of lutein (sow thistle>amaranth>purslane>dandelion) and -carotene (sow thistle>amaranth>purslane=dandelion). Sow thistle and amaranth contained lutein (15 and 13 mg/100 g, respectively) and -carotene (3.3 and 4.0 mg/100 g, respectively) at concentrations greater than that seen in the commercially available species of chicory and endive.” Source.
Papaya — “In conclusion, papaya was shown to provide highly bioavailable β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin and lycopene and may represent a readily available dietary source of provitamin A for reducing the incidence of vitamin A deficiencies in many subtropical and tropical developing countries.” Source.
Pumpkin — The major carotenoid in pumpkin (> 80%) is beta-carotene, with lesser amounts of lutein, lycopene, alpha-carotene and cis-beta-carotene. Pumpkin is a rich source of beta-carotene and might be useful for preventing Vitamin A deficiency. Source.
Spinach — “Lutein, β-carotene, violaxanthin and 9′-(Z)-neoxanthin were the main carotenoids in processed spinach. The total content of carotenoids varied from 176.6 mg kg−1 ‘wet weight’ as eaten in the lightest green genotype to 226.3 mg kg−1 ‘wet weight’ as eaten in the darkest green genotype. The highest content of β-carotene (83.1 mg kg−1 ‘wet weight’ as eaten) was found in the dark green genotype.” Source.
Sweet Potato — “Orange-fleshed roots contained higher total carotenoid and b-carotene content than white- and cream- fleshed lines, and all trans-b-carotene predominated for more than 80%. Carotenoids from orange-fleshed sweetpotato are highly vitamin A active and their consumption in Africa where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent should be encouraged.” Source.
Sweet Red Peppers — “Of the red, green and yellow peppers, the red variety contained greater amounts of b-carotene (P<0.05) and zeaxanthin. The yellow peppers had the lowest carotenoid content. The green colour of green peppers is principally due to the presence of chlorophyll and to carotenoids typical of the chloroplast such as lutein. Likewise, in the present study, the green bell variety had more lutein than the yellow (P<0.05) and red bell peppers.” Source.
Tangerine — “Of the total carotenoids 69 per cent. was in the peel, although the peel constituted only 24 per cent. by weight of the whole fruit. California Valencia oranges contained 98 and 24 mg. per kg. in peel and pulp, respectively, with 62 per cent. of the total carotenoids in the peel. The redder colour of tangerines as compared with oranges was due to considerably higher concentration of cryptoxanthin and of a hydroxycanthaxanthin-like substance in the peel and of cryptoxanthin and β-carotene in the pulp.” Source.
Tomatoes — “Lycopene is the major carotenoid in tomatoes. Tomatoes contain a matrix of many bioactive components, including vitamin C, vitamin E, other carotenoids (a-, beta-, gamma- carotene, lutein), and flavonoids.” Source.
Turnip Greens — “Turnip greens are one of the excellent sources of ß-carotene, lutein and zea-xanthin. 100 g fresh raw greens provide 6952 µg, and 11984 µg of ß-carotene and lutein-zeaxanthin levels respectively. These flavonoids have strong anti-oxidant and anti-cancer activities. Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A inside the human body.” Source.
Watermelon — “Carotenoids are responsible for the different flesh colors in watermelon fruit, such as white, salmon yellow, orange, pale yellow, canary yellow, crimson red, and scarlet red. In red-fleshed watermelons lycopene constitutes the major pigment and b-carotene the secondary. The predominant carotenoid in yellow-fleshed watermelon is neoxanthin. Lycopene content in watermelon is related to genotype and ploidy level, harvest maturity, and growth and development conditions.” Source.
Winter Squash — “The nutritionally important carotenoids, lutein, zeaxanthin, and β-carotene, comprised 41% to 63% of the total carotenoid profile in the C. maxima kabocha hybrids; whereas, the carotenoids neoxanthin and flavoxanthin comprised 37% to 59%. β-Carotene and lutein were the major nutritionally beneficial carotenoids identified in ‘Waltham Butternut’ and three inbred lines of C. moschata, along with much smaller concentrations of α-carotene. Neoxanthin and violaxanthin comprised between 14% and 29% of the total carotenoid profiles among the four cultigens analyzed.” Source.
Yellow Corn — “Carotenoid content of maize fractions ranged from a low of 1.77-6.50 mg/kg in yellow maize bran (YCB) to 12.04-17.94 mg/kg in yellow corn meal (YCM). Lutein and zeaxanthin were major carotenoid species in maize milled fractions, accounting for ~70% of total carotenoid content.” Source.
San Francisco Gate: Which Vegetables Are High in Carotenoids?
Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute: Carotenoids
Life Extension Magazine: Protect Eyes from Blue Light
Life Extension Magazine: Higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels may help protect against cataract