Back To CourseAP Biology: Help and Review
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Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are two xanthophylls that are found in green leafy vegetables and in some fruits as well. They also have antioxidant properties, especially regarding the eyes. These two carotenoids have the ability to absorb the blue light that enters our eyes. This type of light can be damaging when it reaches the inner structures of the eye. Because they protect the eyes from this type of damage, lutein and zeaxanthin reduce the likelihood of cataracts and macular degeneration.
As previously mentioned, carotenoids provide us with numerous health benefits. Provitamin A carotenes such as beta-carotene are a source of vitamin A for our bodies. Vitamin A is essential for us because it is necessary for many cellular functions and for good eyesight. It also helps keep our immune system strong.
Carotenoids also have many antioxidant properties. Antioxidants work by stabilizing harmful molecules in our bodies called free radicals. These molecules can cause cancer, and when we eat foods with antioxidant properties, it takes away the destructive nature of these molecules. Lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin are all antioxidants. Studies have shown that eating foods with these compounds does help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease as well cataracts and macular degeneration, as we talked about earlier.
You may have heard that it is healthy to eat a variety of color when it comes to fruits and vegetables. You now probably understand why this is a good idea. With the variety of color comes the variety of antioxidants and health benefits. So keep eating that rainbow of fruits and veggies.
Carotenoids are the various yellow, orange, red and green pigments that are found in many fruits and vegetables. The two main types are carotenes and xanthophylls. Carotenes are typically yellow and orange. Beta-carotene is a well-known carotene, and it is a provitamin A carotene. Lycopene is a red carotene, and it has antioxidant properties. Xanthophylls are typically found in leafy greens. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two examples of xanthophylls, and they are also antioxidants. Antioxidants work by stabilizing harmful molecules in our bodies called free radicals. Eating foods that contain carotenoids can help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, as well as promote good eye health.
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Back To CourseAP Biology: Help and Review
28 chapters | 382 lessons