Have you ever wondered where the color of fruits and vegetables comes from? Or the coloration of birds, fish, and insects? The answer is a unique group of compounds called carotenoids.
Carotenoids can be seen as yellow, orange, and red colors in nature. Apart from these colors though, carotenoids have also been attributed to health benefits when consumed as part of the human diet. Carotenoids are only produced in plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria, so the only way we can get them is to eat one of those groups. It’s a good thing fruits and vegetables happen to be among the richest sources of carotenoids, huh?
Knowledge of the health attributes of plants dates back thousands of years. Today, scientific research has identified essential minerals and compounds in plants that are not only required for proper nutrition, but are responsible for health maintenance and disease prevention. These health-promoting compounds are referred to as “phytonutrients” (“phyto” = plant derived). Carotenoids are a type of phytonutrient whose consumption has been associated with reduced risks of cancers, various diseases, cataract, and age-related macular degeneration. In fact, the benefits of carotenoids for human health are thought to come from the same way they function in plants.
Green plants are able to convert the energy found in sunlight to a usable food source through a complex chemical process called “photosynthesis” (“photo” = light). If you have ever stood out in direct sunlight on a bright summer day you have felt first hand the amount of energy sunlight has! Well, plants are exposed to that same energy too, but they only use a small portion of it to produce the food they need. One function of carotenoids in plants is to absorb this “excess energy” and protect the delicate structures in the leaves responsible for photosynthesis. They function like a natural "sunblock".
Carotenoids can also act as a kind of natural "sunblock" in the retina of our eyes as well. Just as they protect a plant's photosynthetic structures, the carotenoids in our eyes filter out harmful, damaging blue light and help protect our sight. Along with this benefit, carotenoids also function to protect other parts of our bodies as well.
If you follow medical and health stories in the popular press you have no doubt heard the phrases “free radicals” or "antioxidants". During normal metabolism and in times of infection, your own body produces compounds that can be very destructive. These “free radicals” can actually attack your own cells! In fact, this harmful damage is considered the major cause of aging and degenerative diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, immune-system decline, and cataract. This damage occurs because of the production of highly reactive molecules of oxygen. “Antioxidants” in our bodies are able to grab onto these reactive oxygen molecules or “free radicals” and stop their damaging effects. Many foods we eat contain compounds that can act as antioxidants, but the carotenoids in fruits and vegetables are among then most important.
Current USDA dietary guidelines recommend eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. However, average adult consumption in the U.S. in 1994 was only 4.4 servings per day, with 42% of Americans eating less than 2 servings a day. Scientific research into the vitamin and carotenoid enhancement of fruit and vegetable crops to benefit human health has paralleled the effort to increase their consumption in the diet.
So be sure to consume your carotenoids!!!