From time to time some foods, brands, exotic herbs, supplements or just simple vitamins become a trend. Beta-carotene supplements experienced this tendency a few years ago when they were touted as a powerful antioxidant and anti-cancer vitamin. As you can imagine, the demand of beta-carotene increased dramatically within days. However, there is always a scary part in every fashionable tendency. Trends usually skew a big part of reality and facts. In order words, manipulation.
Why did beta-carotene become so popular? Some researchers discovered that populations with high levels of beta-carotene in their bloodstream had exceedingly low rates of cancer (1). Thus, a myth and a trend have just been born. From that moment all attention focused on supplements. These findings made everyone think that supplementation could be the best weapon against cancer. Nevertheless, it is far from being close to the truth.
Yes, it is true that some studies showed that people were protected against cancer due to hundreds of carotenoids and phytochemicals in the body. But it is important to highlight that those protective compounds came from fruits and vegetables that people had in their diets. Yes, protection may happen because of hundreds of them, not because of just one beta-carotenoid. Clearly, it wasn’t that beta-carotene was responsible for low incidence of cancer, it merely served as a flag for those populations with a high fruit and vegetables intake. Unfortunately, many health authorities confused the flag for the ship.
Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits, especially carrots and colourful vegetables. Beta-carotene, like all carotenoids, is also an antioxidant which protects the body from free radicals preventing the oxidation of other molecules. However, beta-carotene is only one of about five hundred carotenoids. Some other beta-carotenes popular names are: alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, lutein or lycopene.
Understanding isolated nutrients
Let’s say an orange contains 100 hundred carotenoids and from them one called beta-carotene is isolated to manufacture some pills. Would it work? What about cofactors? How will the body process it with missing carotenoids buddies? Would it be absorbed? How much? Any side effects? Without a clear answer to all these questions, it has been demonstrated that a high intake of isolated beta-carotene can disrupt an absorption of other carotenoids. On top of that, supplementation of beta-carotene could hinder activity from zeaxanthin, alpha-carotene, lycopene, lutein and many other crucial plant-derived carotenoids.
The dangerous parts in any misleading information can compromise people’s health. Taking beta-carotene supplements failed to prevent lung cancer according to some Finnish trials (2). Moreover, it increased its incidence and the figure speaks loudly. Up to 28% increase of death rate for those who supplement on a daily basis. Participants in this investigation took high amount of beta-carotene. Furthermore, the death rate from heart disease was 17% higher for those that had taken the supplements than for those that were given just a placebo (3). Another study brought up a similar conclusion: the prostate cancer raises in those men taking beta-carotene pills (4).
Suddenly, the magic power of beta-carotene supplements has been reduced to merely vague and inaccurate facts. Yes, beta-carotene may fight different types of cancer, but only if it comes from fruit and vegetables. So, to make it clear: beta-carotene supplements don’t prevent cancer. Sometimes supplements can do more harm than good. Please, consider that your health cannot be bought in a bottle. This angle about beta-carotene wishes to make you think critically about trending supplements, foods or brands. Always question every fashionable healthy trend. Possibly, the safest option was discovered years ago by Hipocrates when he said: “ Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”