Beta-carotene and other carotenoids as antioxidants

J Am Coll Nutr. 1999 Oct;18(5):426-33. doi: 10.1080/07315724.1999.10718880.


Carotenoids are natural pigments which are synthesized by plants and are responsible for the bright colors of various fruits and vegetables. There are several dozen carotenoids in the foods that we eat, and most of these carotenoids have antioxidant activity. Beta-carotene has been best studied since, in most countries it is the most common carotenoid in fruits and vegetables. However, in the U.S., lycopene from tomatoes now is consumed in approximately the same amount as beta-carotene. Antioxidants (including carotenoids) have been studied for their ability to prevent chronic disease. Beta-carotene and others carotenoids have antioxidant properties in vitro and in animal models. Mixtures of carotenoids or associations with others antioxidants (e.g. vitamin E) can increase their activity against free radicals. The use of animals models for studying carotenoids is limited since most of the animals do not absorb or metabolize carotenoids similarly to humans. Epidemiologic studies have shown an inverse relationship between presence of various cancers and dietary carotenoids or blood carotenoid levels. However, three out of four intervention trials using high dose beta-carotene supplements did not show protective effects against cancer or cardiovascular disease. Rather, the high risk population (smokers and asbestos workers) in these intervention trials showed an increase in cancer and angina cases. It appears that carotenoids (including beta-carotene) can promote health when taken at dietary levels, but may have adverse effects when taken in high dose by subjects who smoke or who have been exposed to asbestos. It will be the task of ongoing and future studies to define the populations that can benefit from carotenoids and to define the proper doses, lengths of treatment, and whether mixtures, rather than single carotenoids (e.g. beta-carotene) are more advantageous.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / administration & dosage
  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use*
  • Biological Availability
  • Carotenoids / administration & dosage
  • Carotenoids / therapeutic use*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Fruit
  • Heart Diseases / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Vegetables
  • beta Carotene / administration & dosage
  • beta Carotene / therapeutic use*


  • Antioxidants
  • beta Carotene
  • Carotenoids