Beta-carotene is a natural pigment found in many fruits and vegetables that gives them a bright orange or yellow color. As an additive, beta-carotene is used as a food coloring and is considered to be generally safe. However, there are some considerations regarding its safety and side effects that consumers should be aware of.
What is Beta-Carotene?
Beta-carotene is part of a family of pigments called carotenoids that are produced naturally by plants and bacteria. Chemically, beta-carotene consists of two retinyl groups linked together. It is considered a provitamin A compound, as the body can convert it into retinol, also known as vitamin A. Beta-carotene gives orange pigments to vegetables and fruits such as carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes, apricots, and cantaloupe.
Sources of Beta-Carotene
The best natural dietary sources of beta-carotene include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Collard greens
- Winter squash
Beta-carotene can also be taken as a dietary supplement, either as an isolated compound or mixed with other carotenoids.
Beta-Carotene as a Food Coloring
In addition to occurring naturally in many foods, beta-carotene is also used as an additive in food coloring. It is approved for use as a food coloring in the United States, European Union, and many other countries. The E number assigned to it as a food additive is E160a.
Reasons beta-carotene may be used as a food coloring include:
- To give a food an orange or yellow color
- As a replacement for synthetic food dyes
- To boost the nutritional value of a food
- As an antioxidant to help preserve foods
Some examples of foods that may contain beta-carotene as a coloring include:
- Ice cream
Safety of Beta-Carotene as a Food Additive
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved beta-carotene as a food additive and colorant. It is considered a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) substance. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) has been set at 5 mg per kg body weight per day.
Potential benefits of beta-carotene as a food additive include:
- Natural pigment versus synthetic dye
- Nutritional value as provitamin A
- Antioxidant properties
Possible concerns with high intakes of beta-carotene include:
- Can turn skin temporarily yellow or orange
- Linked to increased lung cancer risk in smokers
Overall, there is a long history of safe use of beta-carotene in foods. Consuming it as part of a balanced diet is not considered to pose any health risks.
Side Effects and Toxicity
Beta-carotene is considered relatively non-toxic, especially when consumed from natural dietary sources. The main side effect at high supplemental doses is carotenodermia, which causes yellowing of the skin.
The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for beta-carotene from supplements has been set at:
- Adults: 10 mg/day
- Children aged 4-8 years: 6 mg/day
- Children aged 9-13 years: 12 mg/day
Consuming beta-carotene from food sources is not associated with any upper limit restrictions. Only very high supplement doses that provide excess preformed vitamin A pose any concern.
Potential side effects from excessive beta-carotene intake can include:
- Carotenodermia – yellowing of skin
- Hypercarotenemia – high levels in blood
- Liver toxicity
- Oxidative stress
- Interactions with certain medications
There is some evidence that very high doses of beta-carotene supplements in smokers may increase the risk of lung cancer. More research is needed, but caution is advised for smokers regarding beta-carotene supplements.
Allergy and Sensitivity
Allergic reactions to beta-carotene are very rare. People with an allergy to carrots or other carotenoid-containing foods should use caution and consult a doctor before consuming large amounts of beta-carotene.
Signs of a beta-carotene allergy can include:
- Itching or tingling in mouth and throat
- Hives, itchy rash or skin redness
- Swelling of lips, face, tongue, throat
- Wheezing, trouble breathing
- Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting
- Dizziness, fainting
People have also reported gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and yellowing of the skin from consuming high doses of beta-carotene supplements. Those with sensitivities should avoid pure beta-carotene supplements and consume beta-carotene from food instead.
Beta-Carotene Content in Foods
The beta-carotene content in selected foods is shown in the table below:
|Carrots, raw||1 cup||16.8|
|Sweet potato, baked||1 medium||15.8|
|Spinach, raw||1 cup||7.4|
|Kale, raw||1 cup||6.5|
|Apricots, dried||1 cup||4.6|
|Cantaloupe, cubes||1 cup||3.2|
|Mango, slices||1 cup||2.8|
As shown, carrots and sweet potatoes are very high in beta-carotene, with over 15 mg per serving. Leafy greens like spinach and kale also contain substantial amounts, as do dried apricots. Beta-carotene is best obtained by eating generous amounts of fruits and vegetables high in this antioxidant pigment.
Natural vs. Synthetic Beta-Carotene in Foods
Beta-carotene used in food products may come from either natural or synthetic sources:
- Natural: Extracted from edible plants like carrots or algae
- Synthetic: Chemically manufactured in a lab
There are no major differences in safety between natural vs. synthetic beta-carotene. However, consumers often prefer food colors derived from natural sources.
Potential advantages of natural beta-carotene include:
- Perceived as more “natural”
- May have additional beneficial phytonutrients
- Often preferred by consumers
Advantages of synthetic beta-carotene include:
- Much lower production costs
- Consistent quality and color
- Wide availability
Both natural and synthetic beta-carotene provide orange pigment and can serve as antioxidants in food products. Consumers who wish to avoid synthetic additives may look for natural on ingredient labels.
Is Beta-Carotene Vegan?
Beta-carotene derived from plant sources like fruits, vegetables, algae, fungi, or lichens is considered vegan. However, some beta-carotene supplements are sourced from animals, especially fish.
Vegan sources of beta-carotene include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy green vegetables
Non-vegan sources include:
- Fish oil
- Fish liver
- Krill oil
- Dairy products
Vegans should read ingredient labels carefully and look for a vegan or vegetarian label when selecting beta-carotene supplements. Getting beta-carotene from whole food plant sources is recommended for those following a vegan diet.
Beta-carotene as a food additive serves as a natural food coloring while also providing vitamin A activity. At regulated food-use levels, it has a long history of safe use and is not associated with any serious side effects or toxicity. Consuming beta-carotene-rich fruits and vegetables provides optimal health benefits without risk of excess intake. Those wishing to avoid synthetic food additives may look for beta-carotene sourced from carrots, algae, or other natural sources. In conclusion, the evidence suggests beta-carotene is a safe, nutritious food coloring when used appropriately.