The vitamin A precursor beta-carotene has an important function in providing for an adequate supply of total vitamin A, international carotenoid experts state in a published consensus answer.
In their consensus answer, leading experts in the fields of medical and nutritional science elucidate the current knowledge with respect to physiological function, supply situation, and intake recommendations of beta-carotene (1). Vitamin A is essential for normal growth and development, immune system, vision and other functions in the human body. In situations such as pregnancy and lactation, vitamin A plays a particularly important role in the healthy development of the child, and an increase in vitamin A (retinol) intake has been recommended under these conditions.
However, surveys undertaken in several countries suggest that vitamin A intake patterns vary considerably across Europe, the U.S. and Asia. National survey data show that the intake of preformed vitamin A (retinol) – as such only present in animal products (especially liver) – is often critically low and does not meet the recommendations. Groups especially at risk of inadequate vitamin A supply are pregnant and lactating women, newborns, children with frequent infections, the elderly and people who avoid animal-derived foods.
National Consumption Surveys indicate that beta-carotene – as a safe vitamin A precursor – contributes significantly to balance inadequate vitamin A supply in large parts of the population. However, international studies show that a substantial part of the population does not reach the recommendation for beta-carotene necessary to compensate the low vitamin A intake from sources containing preformed vitamin A in the regular diet. Recent evidence has shown that suboptimal levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene, even well above those causing clinical deficiency syndromes, can be risk factors for chronic diseases.
Recent research on female subjects has shown that almost 50% of the population have a genetic variation which reduces their ability to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin A from beta-carotene. Studies indicate that younger women carrying the genetic variation are at particular risk as they tend to eat not enough vitamin A-rich foods relying heavily on the beta-carotene form of the nutrient.
It is apparent from a variety of studies that beta-carotene is essential in striving for the recommended vitamin A intake. In cases of a poor vitamin A status due to low intake of preformed vitamin A, the current recommendations for beta-carotene in the range of 2–4 mg per day still might not sufficiently correct the individual vitamin A status.
In their consensus answer the experts conclude that ignoring inter-individual differences in the ability to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A and assuming that intakes of preformed retinol do not change, it should be ensured that the current recommended intakes of beta-carotene are attained. At the same time, people with an inadequate intake of preformed vitamin A should increase consumption to 7 mg per day, based on a realistic and now in the scientific community generally accepted conversion efficiency of 1:12 (12 milligrams of beta-carotene are necessary to form one milligram of vitamin A). This should ensure that at least 95% of the population meet the recommended intakes of total vitamin A. Individuals with reduced conversion efficiencies due to a genetic variability in beta-carotene metabolism might need to increase their daily intakes even further. This is currently being investigated.
According to the experts, there is no difference in function between naturally occurring and chemically synthesized beta-carotene, whereas there is a difference in bioavailability from different food sources. In humans, the predominant molecular type is ‘all-trans beta-carotene’, used for most dietary supplements and fortified foods; it is absorbed preferentially compared to other forms. As the general population is not obtaining sufficient beta-carotene through fruit and vegetables alone, foods fortified or colored with beta-carotene and dietary supplements are important contributors to the daily supply of vitamin A.