One of the most unfortunate FDA labeling rules ever is allowing food manufacturers to label beta carotene as Vitamin A.
There’s a common misunderstanding that beta-carotene found in fruits and vegetables is the same thing as vitamin A.
It’s not! And I will show you why.
It’s due to a misleading, yet completely legal, labeling practice. It confuses people intently eating a plant-based or vegan diet to incorrectly believe they are getting enough true Vitamin A in their diet when in fact they are sadly deficient.
Vitamin A Equivalent
Carotenes (including beta-carotene) are pigments found abundantly in carrots and other brightly-colored fruits and veggies like cantaloupe and tomatoes. There are hundreds of naturally-occurring carotenoids with beta carotene and lutein being the most well-known.
So when you see “Vitamin A” listed on a product label, it is only because hundreds of carotenoids can legally be called “Vitamin A” – even though they are not.
For instance, bags of broccoli, cans of tomato-based soup or other caroteniod-rich foods have Vit A showing up under the “Nutrition Facts” on the label, when in fact, there is none contained.
To make matters worse and confuse us more, we also are told by most nutrition books and internet sources the following are excellent sources of vitamin A:
- Red, orange and yellow bell peppers
- Dark leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
Poor Conversion Of Beta-Carotene To Vitamin A
Beta-carotene is only the precursor of retinol, the active form of vitamin A.
While beta-carotene can be converted into Vit A in humans, only 3% gets converted in a healthy adult. And that’s assuming you’re not one of the 45% of adults that don’t convert any beta-carotene into vitamin A at all.
What this is saying is that the full amount of beta-carotene found in a plant food is not converted to active (retinol) Vit A, especially if someone has poor gut health that makes conversion difficult.
Reasons Beta-Carotene Isn’t Converted To Vitamin A
- gut issues like leaky gut syndrome
- inflammatory bowel disease
- irritable bowel syndrome
- if a person has had even a single course of antibiotics
- has taken The Pill or steroids which disturb gut health
Diabetics and those with poor thyroid function, (a group that could well include at least half the adult US population), cannot make the conversion.
Children make the conversion very poorly and infants not at all — they must obtain their precious stores of vitamin A from animal fats— yet the low-fat diet is often recommended for children. (source)
Needs In Pregnancy
You’d have to eat a huge amount of beta-carotene from plants to meet vitamin A requirements during pregnancy. For example, 3 ounces of beef liver contains 27,000 IU of Vit. A.
As the chart below illustrates, to get the same amount of vitamin A from plants (assuming a 3% conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A), you’d have to eat 4.4 pounds of cooked carrots, 40 pounds of raw carrots, and 50 cups of cooked kale. This is not a reasonable food source of vitamin A!
And remember: that’s assuming you’re not one of the 45% of people that don’t convert any beta-carotenes into retinol at all!
True Vitamin A Sources
Animal sources of retinol are bio-available, which means the body can utilize it. The vitamin A from plant sources, in contrast, must first be converted to retinol to be useful in the body.
Because of this, we should ideally consume some animal sources of active Vit A, since these are easier for the body to use.
Vitamin A is found in significant amounts only in animal products that naturally have a higher fat content.
What are true vitamin A foods that give the body retinol, not carotenes?
- Virgin Cod Liver Oil – I recommend this one and this one that are not processed and contain naturally occurring Vit A (not synthetic retinyl palmitate)
- Liver from pastured chicken or beef – Enjoy pasture-raised liver 2-3 times per week or take desiccated liver capsules daily
- Egg yolks from hens foraging in pasture, ideally enjoy 2-4 eggs per day
- Heavy cream from grassfed cows
- Butter from grassfed cows
Vitamin A Benefits
It is best to get this nutrient in a form that is readily usable by the body with no conversion required. Here are but a few of the benefits of adequate Vit. A in the diet particularly when pregnant:
- Proper fetal skeletal and palate formation (straight teeth with no orthodontics!)
- Resistance to and/or rapid recovery from infectious disease like measles
- Resolution of psoriasis
- Protective against bladder and lung cancer in men
- Reduces rates of anemia, diarrhea and blindness
- Resolution of night blindness
- Reduces incidence of malaria
- Proper modulation of the immune system
- Helps prevent decreased auditory function associated with age
- Helps inhibit the negative effects of phytic acid intake from wheat and other grains
- Reduces the risk of cataracts
Periods of stress, rigorous exercise and fevers deplete this critical nutrient even more making a daily dose of cod liver oil, arguably the best and most easily obtained whole food which supplies Vit. A in adequate amounts (sources), extremely important.
Can We Take Too Much Vitamin A?
Only extremely high levels of Vit A (over 100,000 IU/day) taken for months produce toxicity problems. It would be impossible to achieve toxicity with Vitamin A rich foods alone. The Weston A. Price Foundation reports that 100,000 IU of Vitamin A from food would consist of “3 tablespoons of high vitamin cod liver oil, 6 tablespoons of regular cod liver oil, two-and-one-half 100-gram servings of duck liver, about three 100-gram servings of beef liver, seven pounds of butter or 309 egg yolks.”
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