Which Form of Vitamin A is the Best:
Beta-Carotene or Retinol?
Revised from 2011
“The safest way to get Vitamin A is from beta-carotene” has become the latest mantra sparking the beta-carotene vs. retinol debate (ad nauseum) on many health blogs.
Unfortunately, many of these strong opinions are based on special-interest-based science, rather than on human biology and chemistry.
When it comes to beta-carotene vs. retinol, vegetarians, vegans and a number of other groups weigh-in by arguing that Vitamin A (retinol) derived from animal sources such as fish, liver, and eggs, is not necessary since beta-carotene is available via plant sources (fruits and vegetables). The idea (or hope) being that we can get all the Vitamin A we need from fruits and vegetables.
Both Beta-carotene and Retinol are Important for Health
Both forms of Vitamin A (beta-carotene and retinol) are indeed important for health. However, if you are one who believes that you can achieve optimal levels of vitamin A via beta-carotene sources only, then you must ask yourself how much fruit and vegetables must be consumed in order to achieve optimal levels of vitamin A that the body can actually utilize?
Well…let’s see how the body goes about absorbing vitamin A as beta-carotene.
When you eat a vegetable, such as a carrot, with the purpose of getting your daily dose of Vitamin A, your body must first go through a series of processes before it can absorb it. The carotene must first be converted to a form of Vitamin A that the body can use – it must convert the carotene into retinol. In order for this to happen, certain physiological systems need to be functioning properly, namely:
- You need a healthy intestinal tract and sufficient bile salts supplied by the gall bladder.
- You need the specific enzymes to break-down the carotene to convert it to retinol.
Let’s assume that these systems are, in fact, working optimally. Even then you would not achieve a 1:1 ratio of carotene and retinol. In fact, the ratio is more like 6:1 respectively. In other words, for every six units of beta-carotene, only one unit of retinol is produced.
And this raises a few concerns.
You would have to eat a heck of a lot of fruits and vegetables to even achieve the RDI of vitamin A…and getting people to eat any fruits and vegetables has been a hard-pressed issue for decades!
Nevertheless, the FDA in all its wisdom actually agreed to count sources like ketchup, canned tomato soup, and other pseudo-vegetables with the nutritional labeling of beta-carotene.
“The label for a can of tomatoes says that tomatoes contain Vitamin A, even though the only source of true Vitamin A in the tomatoes is the microscopic insect parts.”
Is Your Digestive System making the Conversion of Beta-carotene to a ‘Usable’ Form of Vitamin A?
Since the beta-carotene to vitamin A conversion requires a healthy digestive system, and many people are dependent upon medications to relieve heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating, we know that many people are simply not able to make this conversion.
Children, especially infants, don’t make the conversion at all! Yet, we feed them baby food such as strained carrots and spinach, both of which carry high amounts of beta-carotene.
Do you ever wonder if it is human nature to always act so illogically?!
Additionally, there are many factors that deplete the body’s supply of vitamin A (and other nutrients as well) such as:
- Prescription drugs
- Excessive alcohol
- Processed and fast foods
- Stress, both physical and mental
- Zinc deficiency
- Low-fat diet fads
And how prevalent are these in society?
How Does the Conversion from Beta-carotene to Retinol Occur?
As previously mentioned, you need bile salts in order for the conversion to take place. Bile is needed to break down fats. And because most vegetables by their very nature are low in fat, very little bile is produced when they are consumed.
In fact, the low bile production actually prevents the carotene from being converted to the usable form of vitamin A – retinol.
Of course, if you simply add some fat to your vegetables, such as butter, your body might have a shot at making the conversion! However, in today’s society we are still stuck on the idea that a low-fat diet is a healthier diet, and that, of course, means butter is often taken off the table.
So what can we do?
Why not eat foods that contain vitamin A from a more direct source, such as liver, eggs, and butter (to name a few) or by supplementing with fish oils or cod liver oil (high in retinol)?
Well, again, because much of the so-called “health information” out there contains myths such as:
- Your cholesterol will rise if you eat eggs.
- Butter is “bad” fat.
- Animal products are “unhealthy”.
- Vitamin A (Retinol) is toxic.
So what’s the bottom line? If you have zero digestive issues, are in perfect health, eat at least twelve full servings of fruits and vegetables a day (and counting ketchup or any processed food as a synthetic vegetable is not allowed), allow yourself to eat “real” fat, never eat processed or fast foods, and have no stress in your life, then congratulations! You may have an excellent shot at getting sufficient amounts of vitamin A (retinol) from beta-carotene!
If you do not fall into that category, however, then it’s highly likely you are not converting beta-carotene to vitamin A efficiently at all. The obvious answer to this dilemma is to get vitamin A from animal sources, and the simplest means is to take cod liver oil.
Many companies use synthetic vitamin A or have reduced (or even removed) vitamin A from their product. For this reason, I prefer extra-virgin cod liver oil from Corganic. This can be a bit pricey, but I feel it is worth it.
Vitamin A is far too important for health for you to be deficient as a result of unknowingly not being able to convert beta-carotene to retinol, or due to the misconception that retinol is toxic. (Read more, Is Retinol Really Toxic?)
But sadly, the “old remedy” of a spoonful of cod liver oil a day that mothers gave their children is no longer used as a result of the myth that retinol is toxic.
However, advocates for vitamin A, like retinol, feel strongly that many of today’s medical conditions would disappear if this old remedy would make a comeback and be status quo once again!