Natural beta carotene is a plant pigment that is an important contributor to vitamin A in the human diet, and gives carrots their orange color and other plant roots or fruits orange and yellow colors in general. It is present in many types of foods from sweet potatoes to cantaloupe, squash, and papayas. While the compound can be derived from a bio-chemical process involving the reaction of geranylgeranyl pyrophosphate, the most common sources of natural beta carotene are raw fruits and vegetables. The effects of beta carotene on health are focused on the proper function of the immune and reproductive systems and as an antioxidant compound to prevent cellular damage from free radical oxygen molecules in the body.
One of the primary effects of beta carotene is that it is among 50 of an identified 600 carotenoid compounds in nature as of 2011 that is known to promote the use of vitamin A by the human body. Natural beta carotene converts vitamin A into a compound known as retinol that the body can use in several ways. Retinol itself, which is an alcohol compound, can be converted by the body to retinal or retinaldehyde, which is an important element that promotes healthy vision. This is one of the reasons that carrots, which are high in natural beta carotene, have received a reputation for improving and maintaining good eyesight.
Sources of beta carotene can be either from natural foods or beta carotene supplements. Some evidence as of 2004 has suggested that beta carotene supplements created synthetically from palm oil or algae pose an increased risk of colorectal and lung cancer in people who are smokers or who consume alcohol. For this reason, it is suggested that in pill form natural beta carotene supplements are a better choice, or organic beta carotene supplements that are directly derived from fruits and vegetables.
The effects of beta carotene can also be acquired from foods that are not orange or yellow in color. This is because natural beta carotene is also present in some dark green and leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce or green peppers and broccoli. Though the compound itself is fairly widespread in the food chain, it is not an essential element of human health that must be ingested in certain minimum daily requirements like vitamins and minerals. The benefit of natural beta carotene lies primarily in its ability to serve as a provitamin A compound for the antioxidant and other benefits that this vitamin provides.