Vitamin A vs Beta Carotene: Which is Best?

Cod liver oil gelcaps and flask of oil by The Healthy RD
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Vitamin A and beta carotene are often confused as the same thing, but they are not. 

This post will help you learn the differences between vitamin A vs beta carotene.

You will also learn what the health benefits and risks of each are. 

What is Vitamin A?

Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that has wide roles in the body because it helps regulate genes in our bodies. For this reason, vitamin A is involved in cell growth, making cells different from each other, eye health, skin cell integrity, reproductive health, and more. 

Active vitamin A, or provitamin A, has several types found in foods. These include retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid. 

It is important that you know that vitamin A in its active form is only found in animal foods, especially organ meats like beef liver, cod liver oil, eggs, and meats. 

Another important fact about these food sources is that they naturally contain other nutrients that help you absorb vitamin A such as healthy fats

What is Beta-Carotene?

On the other hand, beta carotene often gets confused with vitamin A, but it is not actually active vitamin A.  It is called pre-vitamin A.  

Beta carotene belongs to a class of antioxidants called carotenoids.

These carotenoids, while healthy, don’t necessarily become vitamin A in the body in many circumstances. This is because the absorption of beta-carotene is poor. 

It is also difficult for the body to convert beta-carotene into active vitamin A due to several genetic tendencies that are quite common. 

For example, if you carry the BCM01 gene variant as about 45% of the population does, you are much less likely to be able to make beta-carotene into vitamin A. 

You can help your body absorb beta-carotene by eating it with healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil

However, if you are like many with genetic variations that make it difficult to use beta carotene, you may not be able to rely on beta carotene as a good vitamin A source in your diet. 

Food sources of beta carotene include carrots, squash, pumpkin, leafy greens, mangos, apricots, and any dark orange, yellow, and red-colored fruits and vegetables. 

Vitamin A vs Beta Carotene

Image of vitamin A rich foods including eggs, beef liver, and cod liver oil and beta carotene rich foods including many fruits and vegetables for the vitamin A vs beta carotene post by The Healthy RD

Vitamin A is more important than beta-carotene because vitamin A is essential while beta-carotene is not. 

There are 3 reasons that vitamin A is better than beta carotene. 

First, almost half of the population has a genetic variation that doesn’t allow for the efficient production of vitamin A from beta-carotene. 

Second, beta-carotene is rather poorly absorbed with only about 3% of it being absorbed into the body.

Third, it takes 5 steps in the body to make beta-carotene into active vitamin A.  These multiple steps mean that there are a lot of ways that the conversion of beta carotene can be impaired. 

Both vitamin A and beta carotene have health benefits in the body in their own ways, though, so let’s review those next. 

Vitamin A Benefits 

Vitamin A is a critical nutrient for overall health.  Its main roles in the body are to help maintain a healthy immune system, support normal eye function, protect the skin, and even play a role in brain health.  

Further, vitamin A may improve cognition and memory. 

Vitamin A is indispensable: as an antioxidant, it reduces the risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, autoimmunity, and cancer.

Additionally, it may even improve hormone production, and gut health, and even reduce the risk of obesity. 

Let’s take a closer look. 

Related post: Can Probiotics Affect Your Periods?

Vitamin A Regulates Genes

Vitamin A is an active gene regulator and is also important for attending to reducing the body’s response to toxins and inflammation.  

In fact, vitamin A helps regulate over 100 genes in our bodies. This means that vitamin A is critical for maintaining optimal health. 

In other words, vitamin A may enhance what your mama gave you or prevent some genetically driven diseases.   

Vitamin A for Healthy Immunity

One of the most impressive benefits of vitamin A is that it helps keep your immune system intact. Vitamin A is involved in the front-line defense of the immune system by helping the body make the mucus layer of the respiratory tract and of the gut. 

This means that vitamin A helps keep germs flushed out of the body. 

Additionally, vitamin A helps improve the cellular production of innate and adaptive immunity, including macrophages, neutrophils, and T-cells. 

Interestingly, vitamin A deficiency may be related to getting severe influenza. To further support this, children with better vitamin A and vitamin D levels have improved immune responses to vaccines.  

Vitamin A also helps keep the immune system in check by dampening inflammation. This means that vitamin A may reduce the symptoms of autoimmune diseases too. 

By regulating immunity, research shows that vitamin A may help decrease the chance of fat accumulation leading to obesity.

Vitamin A for Eye Health

Vitamin A in its active form called retinol helps maintain visual perception by protecting the retina. 

Low vitamin A levels in the body can lead to vision impairment, especially at night. This is often called night blindness. 

Vitamin A may help improve overall eye health and reduce the risk of eye diseases. 

Supplemental vitamin A as retinol may also reduce symptoms of age-related macular degeneration. 

Vitamin A for Skin Health

Retinols work by triggering surface skin cells to turn over quickly, making way for new cell growth underneath. 

By doing so, vitamin A as retinol helps the skin look younger. But skin health isn’t just about beauty. 

Healthy skin supports a healthy immune system by helping reduce the entrance of harmful bacteria and viruses into the body. 

Vitamin A as retinol also slows down the breakdown of collagen and helps thicken the deeper layer of skin. 

Interestingly, vitamin A may also help the body make more collagen in the skin.  

Vitamin A may also reduce skin cancer risk

Related post: Regenacol Skin Inside Review

Vitamin A Reduces Heavy Menstrual Periods

By regulating cell growth, vitamin A also plays a role in hormonal balance in the body. 

Additionally, vitamin A deficiency is related to an increased risk of having abnormal menstrual periods

Further, using vitamin A supplements is helpful in reducing the difficulty of heavy periods according to clinical research. 

In fact, heavy periods were reduced in 92% of patients receiving vitamin A. While more research is needed in this area, vitamin A is a nice option for women who don’t want to take synthetic hormones to regulate their periods. 

Vitamin A for Cancer Risk Reduction

Deficiency of vitamin A also impairs genes, so it plays a role in cancer risk.

Vitamin A as retinol may reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer such as colon cancer, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer

By dampening inflammation and supporting immune health, getting adequate vitamin A is essential for helping reduce the risk of many diseases like cancer. 

Vitamin A for Brain Health

Beyond the commonly known functions of vitamin A, this fascinating antioxidant may even play a role in reducing the risk of memory loss that occurs in diseases like Alzheimer’s disease

This is because vitamin A plays a role in keeping brain synapses healthy in certain areas of the brain like the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in helping us with new learning and memory

More research is needed in this area. 

Related post: Broccoli Sprouts for Brain Health

Vitamin A Balances Bone Health

Surprisingly, vitamin A likely helps to keep bones strong. A systematic review of 13 research studies showed that overall vitamin A likely helps improve bone mineral density

But, both low and high levels of vitamin A can be harmful to bone health. 

Low levels of vitamin A are related to an increased risk of hip fractures although not all research suggests this. 

Beta Carotene Benefits and Risks

Beta carotene, on the other hand, is one of many carotenoids in the diet that act as antioxidants in the body. 

For this reason, it is best to get both active or preformed vitamin A as retinol and beta carotene in the diet to ensure the best odds of getting enough vitamin A in your diet. 

Diets that have a lot of beta carotene may reduce the risk of getting cancer, such as stomach, and lung cancer, prostate, breast, head, and neck cancers.

Cancer progression is also reduced in people who eat at least five servings of beta-carotene-rich foods like green, orange, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables.   

Most likely, the combination of beta-carotene along with other antioxidants found in these same fruits and vegetables decrease cancer risks, not just the beta-carotene in them.

It is important to note that high beta-carotene intake from beta-carotene supplements may actually increase the risk of lung cancer among people who smoke tobacco. 

Other carotenoids such as astaxanthin, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin play important antioxidant roles in the body. These carotenoids may be even more important than beta carotene for eye health. 

The use of lutein and and zeaxanthin may be safer alternatives for reducing the risk of age-related macular degeneration according to the Age-Related Eye Disease Study

This is because beta carotene at high doses can have pro-oxidant effects.

What is the Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin A?

Most foods that are rich in vitamin A don’t have a dietary supplement label. This makes it challenging to determine how much vitamin A or even how much beta-carotene you get in your diet. 

To make things more challenging, the vitamin A content of foods can dramatically vary depending on the quality of the soil that the foods come from. 

But, you still may be interested in the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A. 

The Institute of Medicine set the RDA of vitamin A for people over age 19 at:

  • 900 mcg per day for men
  • 700 mcg per day for women
  • 770 mcg per day for pregnant women
  • 1300 mcg per day for breastfeeding women

It is important to understand that the RDA is established to prevent vitamin A toxicity, but may not have enough vitamin A for optimal health.  The RDA may also not be enough for special health considerations as reviewed above.  

Vitamin A in Foods

Active vitamin A, such as retinol, is naturally present in animal sources and is fully bioavailable for absorption compared to beta carotene which is not.  

The RAE (retinol activity equivalent) of these animal sources is usually 100% meaning that they are fully bioavailable.

Foods particularly high in retinol as vitamin A include:

Foodmg of vitamin ARAE
Beef Liver6570 mcg6570 mcg
Lamb Liver6610 mcg6610 mcg
Liver sausage6900 mcg6900 mcg
Cod Liver Oil1350 mcg1350 mcg
Bluefin Tuna643 mcg643 mcg
Eggs (3)309 mcg309 mcg
The vitamin A content of selected foods in 3-ounce portions unless otherwise indicated.

It is no surprise to anyone reading this that our diets have changed dramatically in the last century, and this has shifted patterns of nutrient intake, including vitamin A.  

As you can see, the list of vitamin A-rich foods isn’t a list of foods that are commonly eaten. 

While eggs are the exception to the rule, their vitamin A content varies greatly depending on how the chickens are raised and what they are fed. 

Because of this, taking a grass-fed beef liver supplement or cod liver oil supplement can be helpful to get adequate vitamin A in the diet. 

You can also supplement your diet with organ meats, including kidney organ meats.

However, if you have a condition known as iron overload, you should avoid eating organ meats.

Related post: Is Liver Superfood?

Beta Carotene in Foods

While there is a recommended daily intake for vitamin A, there is no recommended intake for beta carotene.

However, eating beta carotene amounts between 3 to 6 mg of beta carotene per day may lower your chances of getting a chronic disease.

A cup of the following vegetables will provide you with enough beta-carotene to keep you healthier.  The RAE is the retinol activity equivalent.

You will notice that the RAE is usually about 10% of the total beta carotene content, which means that it is not readily absorbable or bioavailable as vitamin A.

Food Beta-Carotene in mg and RAE:

Foodmg of beta caroteneRAE
Sweet potatoes, cooked 1 cup30 mg1.1 mg
Carrot juice, 1 cup21 mg2.2 mg
Pumpkin, 1 cup cooked17 mg0.5 mg
Carrots, 1 cup cooked11 mg1.2 mg
Collard greens, cooked 1 cup11 mg1.2 mg
Kale, cooked 1 cup11 mg1.2 mg
Spinach, cooked 1 cup11 mg1.2 mg
Raw carrots, 1 cup10 mg0.4 mg
Winter squash, 1 cup cooked7 mg0.3 mg
Cantaloupe, 1 cup4 mg0.2 mg
Apricots3 mg0.1 mg
Romaine lettuce, 1 cup raw3 mg0.1 mg

Side Effects of Vitamin A

As with anything, too much vitamin A may negatively affect your health. 

Vitamin A toxicity symptoms include liver damage, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, hair loss, and vision changes in adults according to the Merck Manual

If you are pregnant, you should avoid large doses of vitamin A because it has been linked to birth defects. 

However, excess vitamin A is rare unless you take a dietary supplement with high doses of vitamin A daily. 

According to the Institute of Medicine the Tolerable Upper Limit of Vitamin A is 3,000 mcg per day. 

Yet some research shows that dietary supplements of vitamin A at doses of up to 25,000 IU per day is safe. Higher doses of vitamin A may be helpful in reducing the risk of skin cancer, but more research is needed.

Eating vitamin A-rich foods is unlikely to ever result in excess vitamin A. 

Experts in vitamin A research recommend that you should get adequate vitamin D to help avoid any risk of toxicity of vitamin A. 

If you are a smoker, you should avoid taking beta-carotene supplements. 

Types of Vitamin A Supplements

Vitamin A supplements are available, but you should know that most vitamin A on the market is synthetic.

For this reason, the best way to get extra vitamin A in supplemental form is by taking desiccated liver capsules

Another good option is to find a high-quality cod liver oil.

Beta carotene supplements are not recommended because of the inefficient conversion into active vitamin A and because there is an increased cancer risk in susceptible individuals like smokers. 

It is best to get beta carotene in your diet through darkly pigmented vegetables and fruits. 

FAQs

Which is better for eye health: vitamin A or beta-carotene?

The research isn’t “clear” about which is better for eye health. Because of this, it is likely best to get both in your diet. 

Is it okay to take vitamin A supplements every day?

This depends on your baseline diet. However, most people don’t eat vitamin A-rich foods, so it is likely safe for most people to get a moderate dose of vitamin A in supplements. To be sure, you should always check with your healthcare provider to determine if taking vitamin A is right for you. 

What is the richest source of vitamin A?

Beef liver

Are vitamin A and beta carotene the same thing?

No. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient while beta carotene can become vitamin A, but requires multiple steps in the body to do so. 

Is beta carotene toxic?

Not usually, although some research indicates that it can be a pro-oxidant at high doses. 

Can you take beta carotene and vitamin A together?

Yes, both naturally occur in the diet, so it can be safe to take both together in a supplement form if you follow safe dosing guidelines as reviewed above. However, if you are a smoker, you should avoid taking supplemental beta carotene. 

Do carrots contain vitamin A or beta-carotene?

Carrots contain beta-carotene. They do not have active vitamin A. 

Is vitamin A safe during pregnancy?

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient for both a pregnant mom and her baby. But, there is a risk of taking extra vitamin A due to teratogenicity. For this reason, it is best to eat vitamin A-rich foods instead of supplemental amounts above the dose you get in a prenatal vitamin. 

Which is better vitamin A or beta-carotene?

While both may have important roles in the body, vitamin A is an essential nutrient while beta-carotene is not. 

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