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Publication #FCS8935

Carotenoids and Eye Health1

Linda B. Bobroff2

What are carotenoids?

Carotenoids are vitamin A-like compounds found in plants. They have various roles in human health. Some are provitamin A carotenoids. Our bodies can convert these carotenoids into the active form of vitamin A known as retinol. Beta-carotene is a well-known provitamin A carotenoid.

Carotenoids that cannot be converted to vitamin A are called non-provitamin A carotenoids. They are a type of phytochemical (PC)—chemicals in plants that are not essential for life. Some 5,000 PCs have been identified, and probably thousands more exist in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods. PCs are of interest because many of them affect our health. Some reduce risk for the major chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Others impact urinary tract, prostate, or eye health. This fact sheet focuses on lutein and zeaxanthin (zee-uh-zan-thin), non-provitamin A carotenoids that promote eye health.

What is AMD?

AMD is age-related macular degeneration. The macula is the center part of the retina. It is the part of the eye that helps us focus images. When the macula is harmed, images in the center of the field of vision are blurred. AMD is the leading cause of blindness among adults over 60 years of age in the U.S.

Figure 1. 

Eye disease simulation depicting normal vision (photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)


Credit: NIH
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 2. 

Eye disease simulation of age-related macular degeneration (photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)


Credit: NIH
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Exposure to sunlight and to free radicals* can harm the macula and cause AMD. We can protect our eyes from sunlight by wearing sunglasses when we are outdoors. We can help protect the macula from free-radical damage by having a ready supply of antioxidants in our bodies. The best way to do this is to eat a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables that provide lutein and zeaxanthin.

*Free radicals are substances that our bodies produce during everyday chemical reactions. They cause health problems by damaging cell membranes and DNA. Antioxidants, such as vitamin C and carotenoids, keep free radicals under control. We get these antioxidants from the colorful fruits and vegetables that we eat.

What are lutein and zeaxanthin?

Lutein and zeaxanthin are non-provitamin A carotenoids. They are antioxidants that are concentrated in the macula of our eyes. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables that are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin may reduce risk for AMD. It’s important to get our antioxidants from foods! Beta-carotene supplements have been found to have no effect on risk for these eye diseases.

Other risk factors for AMD

The major risk factors for AMD are being over 60 years of age and smoking. Having a family history also increases risk. Whites and females are more likely than others to have AMD.

What are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin?

Eating a healthful diet rich in green leafy and orange vegetables will provide lutein and zeaxanthin. Table 1 describes several foods that are good-to-rich sources of these carotenoids.

Table 1. 

Common foods rich in lutein / zeaxanthin (µg = microgram)

Food

µg lutein/zeaxanthin per 100 g

Kale

39,550

Spinach

11,940

Turnip Greens

8,440

Lettuce

2,635

Broccoli

2,450

Winter Squash

2,120

Sweet Corn

1,800

Brussels sprouts

1,590

Peas

1,350

Summary

Eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables provides a variety of nutrients as well as phytochemicals that can promote health. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two non-provitamin A carotenoids that appear to be protective against AMD, the leading cause of blindness in older adults.

References

  1. Christen, W.G., Liu, S., Schaumberg, D.A., & Buring, J.E. (2005). Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cataract in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 81(6): 1417–1422.

  2. DGAC. (2010). Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Washington DC.

  3. Liu, R.H. (2003). Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. Am J Clin Nutr. 78(3): 517S–520S.

  4. Pratt, S. (2001). Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and lutein: Assessing the evidence. London: Royal Society of Medicine Press Limited.

  5. Office of Dietary Supplements, NIH. (2006). Vitamin A and Carotenoids. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet 2006. Retrieved October 25, 2010 from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamina/.

  6. Trumbo, P.R., & Ellwood, K.C. (2006). Lutein and zeaxanthin intakes and risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts: An evaluation using the Food and Drug Administration's evidence-based review system for health claims. Am J Clin Nutr. 84(5): 971–974.

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS8935, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date March 2011. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/.

2.

Linda B. Bobroff, PhD, RD, LD/N, professor and Extension nutrition specialist; Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; University of Florida; Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.