Carotenoids: Definition, Function & Benefits

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  • 0:02 What Are Carotenoids
  • 0:54 Types & Function of…
  • 3:44 Benefits of Carotenoids
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

Carotenoids are a group of pigments that are responsible for the rich colors found in many fruits and vegetables. Let's learn more about the health benefits and importance of carotenoids!

What are Carotenoids?

When you are in the produce section at the local market, do you ever stop to notice the variety of color in the fruits and vegetables around you? From vibrant orange and yellow peppers to deep red tomatoes and dark leafy greens, bursts of color are everywhere. Thanks to a group of pigments known as carotenoids, we can eat a virtual rainbow of food.

Carotenoids Create Healthy and Colorful Produce
Colorful Vegetables

Carotenoids don't simply exist just to make our food look pretty; they also have a wealth of health benefits, such as giving us vitamin A. This provides our bodies with antioxidants, which stabilize harmful molecules in the body called free radicals. In fact, an enormous variety of fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids that are crucial in our diets for our overall health. In this lesson, you will get to learn more about these compounds and gain an understanding of how they help us.

Types and Function of Carotenoids

There are over 600 known carotenoids found in nature. Carotenoids are fat-soluble compounds, meaning they are broken down in the presence of fat. Whether or not you love fruits and vegetables, you have most likely consumed many foods containing these compounds. If you have munched on carrots or choked down a dish of creamed spinach, you have indeed eaten them. Let's take a deeper look at the different categories of carotenoids and which foods they encompass.

There are two main groups of carotenoids: the carotenes and the xanthophylls. These two categories differ in molecular structure and composition. Let's look first at the carotenes, which are molecules known as hydrocarbons. Carotenes are the carotenoids found in the yellow and orange fruits and vegetables such as pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots and, yes, carrots. If you associate the word carrot with carotene, you will certainly be able to remember the color of these pigments.

Carrots are an Excellent Source of Beta-Carotene

One of the more familiar carotenes is beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is known as a provitamin A carotene because it can be converted by the body to a usable form of vitamin A. In fact, many of these orange and yellow foods are the primary source of vitamin A in a diet. Remember when your parents told you to eat your carrots so you would have good eyesight? This was not just a ploy to get you to eat your vegetables. Vitamin A is essential for our bodies for many reasons that we will discuss a little later.

Another very well-known carotene is lycopene. Bringing the rich, red color to tomatoes, lycopene has many antioxidant properties. One interesting fact about lycopene is that its properties and availability to the body are enhanced when tomatoes are cooked. Typically, cooking fruits and vegetables takes away some of their nutritive properties, but not with tomatoes. So keep making those delicious simmered sauces to gain even more health benefits. And lycopene isn't exclusively found in tomatoes, but also in pink grapefruit as well as watermelon.

Lycopene Creates Red Color in Tomatoes
Tomatoes contain Lycopene

Xanthophylls, the other type of carotenoid, are oxygen-containing molecules. They are found in dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as broccoli. If you pay attention to healthy food at all, you are sure to recognize these vegetables as some of the healthiest around. Xanthophylls are also antioxidants, and two in particular have great importance in the health of our eyes.

Kale Contains Xanthophylls

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