Biological actions of carotenoids

FASEB J. 1989 Jun;3(8):1927-32.


Of 600 carotenoids from natural sources that have been characterized, fewer than 10% serve as precursors of vitamin A. Many dietary carotenoids, both with and without provitamin A activity, are found in the blood and tissues of humans. beta-Carotene, the most nutritionally active carotenoid, comprises 15-30% of total serum carotenoids. Vitamin A is formed primarily by the oxygen-dependent central cleavage of beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids. Several carotenoids show enhancement of the immune response, inhibition of mutagenesis, reduction of induced nuclear damage, and protection from various neoplastic events in cells, tissues, and whole animals. Carotenoids also protect against photo-induced tissue damage. Some carotenoids, including beta-carotene, quench highly reactive singlet oxygen under certain conditions and can block free radical-mediated reactions. In epidemiological studies, the intake of carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables has been correlated with protection from some forms of cancer, particularly lung cancer. Similarly, serum beta-carotene levels have been associated with a decreased chance of developing lung cancer. It must be stressed, however, that these epidemiological associations do not show cause and effect. In this regard, long-term intervention trials with beta-carotene supplements are in progress. Whatever the results of these trials, carotenoids clearly show biological actions in animals distinct from their function as precursors of vitamin A.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carotenoids / analysis
  • Carotenoids / immunology
  • Carotenoids / metabolism
  • Carotenoids / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / etiology
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Tissue Distribution
  • Vitamin A / biosynthesis
  • Vitamin A Deficiency / etiology


  • Vitamin A
  • Carotenoids