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What is Beta Carotene?

Beta-carotene, we’ve all heard of it and we’ve all heard that it is good for us, but what exactly is it?Beta-carotene is the molecule in foods, such as carrots, that give them their orange color. It is a molecule found in your orange and yellow fruits and vegetables and it is even found in egg yolks.Carotenoids were isolated early in the 19th century and in the 1950s, we began using them for food colorings. Beta-carotene is essentially the most important precursor to vitamin A. Beta-carotene is known for its antioxidant properties as well and helps to prevent cancer a host of other diseases.There are methods in which beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A. The first through a chemical process, but the second is what is most important to us as humans. Beta-carotene is broken down in the walls of our small intestine and is then catalyzed by an enzyme called beta-carotene dioxygenase. Here the beta-carotene is turned into retinol and is stored in the liver as retinyl esters. This is why cod liver oil is often taken as a vitamin A supplement. This is also why they say you should not eat the liver of a polar bear if you’re stuck at the North Pole without any food. The polar bear’s liver stores 2 years worth of Vitamin A in just a portion of their liver, which is extremely toxic to you.In the body, vitamin A has several useful functions and most importantly, it’s the reason you can see well. Did your mother ever tell you to eat your carrots so you can see in the dark? If so, she wasn’t far off. Beta-carotene, which is found in carrots, is the pre-cursor to vitamin A, which is retinol in the body and which plays a vital role in your vision. Retinol is oxidized into retinal, which joins a molecule in your eyes called opsin. When a photon of light hits this opsin-retinal complex, a chain of events occurs that causes you to be able to see.Now that you know what beta-carotene is and how it is the first step in producing vitamin A, you have just one more reason to be certain to eat all your carrots.

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