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Alpha-carotene is part of the carotenoid family, and is one of the most abundant carotenoids in a healthy diet. Your body can convert alpha and beta-carotene into vitamin A for the maintenance of healthy skin and bones, good vision, and a robust immune system.
Because the body converts alpha-carotene to vitamin A, alpha-carotene is called a precursor to vitamin A, or a provitamin A compound. As a precursor to vitamin A, alpha-carotene is only about half as effective as beta-carotene, another well-known carotenoid.
However, alpha-carotene may be even more effective than beta-carotene in its role as an antioxidant.
Antioxidants are enzymes that stop free radicals from causing cells to break down, or oxidise. Powerful antioxidants like alpha-carotene remove destructive free radicals from the body before they cause the tissue damage that can lead to chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.
In addition, alpha-carotene may help prevent cancer by stimulating cell-to-cell communication, a process which researchers now believe is necessary to ensure proper cell division.
Alpha-carotene contains flavonoids, which are antioxidant substances that give colour and flavour to many orange- and red-coloured fruits and vegetables. Carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, kale, cantaloupe, brussels sprouts, kiwi, spinach, mangos, squash, and spinach are all good sources of alpha-carotene.
Many flavonoids in fruits and vegetables are in the skin, so it's best not to peel fruits and vegetables when possible. However, lightly steaming some foods, such as carrots and spinach, can actually improve the body's ability to absorb them.
Alpha-carotene is a fat-soluble substance, which requires the presence of dietary fat for proper absorption. Medical conditions that interfere with the digestion of fats, such as Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis, surgical removal of the stomach, pancreatic enzyme deficiency, and gall bladder and liver disease, can inhibit the body's ability to absorb alpha-carotene and other carotenoids.
People who take cholesterol-lowering medications, smokers, those that regularly consume alcohol, and those that have diets low in calories or lacking fruits and vegetables may also have lower than normal blood levels of alpha-carotene.
Alpha-carotene is available (with other carotenoids) in supplements containing either the algae Dunaliella or mixed carotenes from palm oil. If you smoke, use carotenoid supplements with caution. There have been some studies that indicate carotenoid supplements may do more harm than good for smokers.
There is no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for alpha-carotene. However, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommends that individuals consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetable every day.
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