The Benefits and Risks of Certain Dietary Carotenoids that Exhibit both Anti- and Pro-Oxidative Mechanisms-A Comprehensive Review

Antioxidants (Basel). 2020 Mar 23;9(3):264. doi: 10.3390/antiox9030264.


Carotenoid pigments, particularly β-carotene and lycopene, are consumed in human foodstuffs and play a vital role in maintaining health. β-carotene is known to quench singlet oxygen and can have strong antioxidant activity. As such, it was proposed that β-carotene might reduce the risk of cancer. Epidemiological studies found inverse relationships between cancer risk and β-carotene intake or blood levels. However, clinical trials failed to support those findings and β-carotene supplementation actually increased lung cancer incidence in male smokers. Early experimental animal studies found dietary β-carotene inhibited UV-induced skin cancers. Later studies found that β-carotene supplementation exacerbated UV-carcinogenic expression. The discrepancies of these results were related to the type of diet the animals consumed. Lycopene has been associated with reduced risk of lethal stage prostate cancer. Other carotenoids, e.g., lutein and zeaxanthin, play a vital role in visual health. Numerous studies of molecular mechanisms to explain the carotenoids' mode of action have centered on singlet oxygen, as well as radical reactions. In cellular systems, singlet oxygen quenching by carotenoids has been reported but is more complex than in organic solvents. In dietary β-carotene supplement studies, damaging pro-oxidant reactivity can also arise. Reasons for this switch are likely due to the properties of the carotenoid radicals themselves. Understanding singlet oxygen reactions and the anti-/pro-oxidant roles of carotenoids are of importance to photosynthesis, vision and cancer.

Keywords: cancer; carotenes; lycopene; macular degeneration; porphyria; radical reactions; singlet oxygen; β-carotene.

Publication types

  • Review