A group of phytochemicals called carotenoids are found more abundantly in carrots than any other vegetable or food source and as we can see they are actually named after carrots. Carotenoids are potent antioxidants created in vegetables to protect themselves from the oxidative effects of sunlight, especially the blue part of the light spectrum.
There are actually more than 600 known kinds of carotenoids of which three are found abundantly in carrots – alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. Beta-carotene is more commonly known and is often called pro-vitamin A because it is converted by the body to vitamin A. Alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are also converted to vitamin A but half as effectively as beta-carotene. It takes 12mcg of beta-carotene to generate 1mcg of vitamin A, while it takes 24mcg of either alpha-carotene or beta-cryptoxanthin to produce 1mcg of vitamin A.
Carotenoids and Heart Health
A variety of studies have found that a diet rich in carotenoids is associated with a significant reduction in heart disease, especially in the form of atherosclerosis. Carotenoids are fat soluble and therefore travel within lipids in the blood such as LDL cholesterol. Their antioxidant actions also protects LDL cholesterol from oxidative damage and this protection is the basis of reducing the risk of atherosclerosis developing. Oxidized LDL cholesterol cells are bad news because they attach to the artery walls developing into a plaque that narrows and hardens the arteries, therefore creating atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis raises blood pressure and reduces blood flow to the heart and even the brain. This can lead to stroke or heart attacks.
One study which provided powerful evidence for the heart protective qualities of carotenoids was conducted with 1300 elderly people in Massachusetts. Researchers discovered that those who ate a daily serving of carotenoid rich foods (either carrots or squash in this instance) were 60% less likely to suffer a heart attack than those who ate less than a daily serving! That is a pretty astounding result!
Carotenoids and Cancer Prevention
There was a lot of controversy when a study revealed that beta-carotene supplementation actually increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers. However this negative effect only held true for beta-carotene in supplement form and the opposite is true for those whose diets are high in real food sources of beta-carotene such as carrots. Synthetic beta-carotene supplements are actually a little different in their chemical structure to beta-carotene in foods and their effect upon our cells is naturally different too. Large prospective studies that include tens of thousands of people always find that those who eat carrots daily are up to 50% less likely to develop lung cancer. In fact carrot consumption was not just limited to providing protection from lung cancer put also proved to be protective against cancers of the colon, larynx, esophagus, prostate, cervix and bladder.
Carotenoids and Digestion
When we eat raw carrots we are limited in the amount of carotenoids that we actually digest. Carotenoids are deeply entwined in the matrix of proteins and fibers of carrots (and other vegetables) and require some help to be released. Chewing does help to release the carotenoids on a very small scale but cooking carrots helps to loosen up the carotenoids more extensively and increases bioavailability. Juicing carrots is also another great way to improve the bioavailability of carotenoids. A juicing machine’s blade will ‘chew up’ the carrots extensively and research shows that carrot juice is a considerably better source of carotenoids than eating a raw carrot.
There is also another factor that greatly improves the digestibility of carotenoids and that is fat! Carotenoids are fat soluble so adding oil to salads or cooking greatly improves digestibility.
Vitamin A Benefits
As the carotenoids in carrots nutrition are transformed to vitamin A by the liver then carrots also provide us with the health benefits of carrots vitamin A content. Carrots are famous for ‘helping us see in the dark’ and this is no ‘old wives tale’ because vitamin A is essential for preventing night blindness. Vitamin A is converted in the eye to another chemical called rhodopsin, a purple based pigment that the eye needs to see at night. The antioxidant action of vitamin A also helps to protect eye cells from oxidative damage that can lead to premature aging of the eyes and increase the risk of developing eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration.
Providing healthy skin is another important health benefit of carrots vitamin A content. Vitamin A is needed in the creation of and the healthy maintenance of epithelial skin cells. Even a slight deficiency of vitamin A may lead to dry, cracked or rough looking skin (or all three!). The antioxidant actions of vitamin A also protects the epithelial skin cells from the oxidative effects of free radicals that are found in polluted air and smoke.
In partnership with the antioxidant vitamins C and E, vitamin A is also an essential member of the immune system.
Carrots Nutrition Facts
Besides being an excellent source of some carotenoids and vitamin A, carrots are also a good source of vitamins B1, B3, B6, folate, C and K, molybdenum, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous and dietary fiber.