• What 3 things make produce good for you?
• How can these foods protect against cancer?
• What about heart disease?
• Why is pizza being called a “health food”?
Look inside and find out how you can easily include the benefits of fruits and veggies daily….
Topic: Carotenes & Carotenoids
What have scientists found? It appears that eating deeply colored fruits and vegetables can help prevent both cancer and cardiovascular disease, the top two killers in the western world. The carotene compounds in these foods also show that they are related to a reduction in disorders of the eyes, such as cataracts and macular degeneration.
Want a feast for your eyes? Wander through the fresh produce section of your supermarket. Or better yet, stroll by the stalls of your local farmers’ market. See the rich green, orange, red, purple, and yellow fruits and vegetables awaiting your selection.
The colors are not just nature’s splash of creativity. The brilliant hues are part of the magic of vegetables and fruits. The colors are made of compounds called pigments (similar to those in paints and dyes). Wonderful nutrients lie embedded within the multitude of pigments.
For years, fruits and vegetables have been the subject of scientific research. Scientists want to know what these foods contain that make them so good for us. Now we know that produce contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of compounds that can influence our health and vitality. Among these are carotenes and carotenoids. This is just one class of natural compounds that can provide us with vibrant nutrition.
Carotenes are a family of naturally occurring, fat-soluble pigments, ranging from violet to red-yellow to yellow, and are found in most classes of vegetables. The best known of these is beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the liver.1 It also has biological activity of its own. Other carotenes include alpha carotene and gamma carotene.
1 Vitamin A and beta carotene are thoroughly discussed in Nutrition News, “What’s So Important About Vitamin A?” The vitamin A issue is used as a reference in this current issue.
Carotenoids are a class of carotenes that are yellow to deep red in color. They concentrate in the fat tissue of animals and humans who consume them. Although scientists have isolated over five hundred carotenoids, only a few have been studied for their nutritional value. Some carotenoids that are gaining recognition for their health benefits include lutein, lycopene, astaxanthin, and zeaxanthin.
Carrots vs. Cancer
“Importantly, in virtually all situations regular intake of fruits and vegetables appreciably lowers the risk of cancer.” This was written in 1991 by JH Weisburger, PhD, cancer researcher, who also wrote, “chemoprotective nutrients [found in fruits and vegetables] include beta carotenes and carotenoids”. Studies dating back several decades have consistently found that a diet rich in vegetables helps prevent many forms of cancer, especially colon cancer.
Protection encompasses more than colon cancer. Studies also show that when dietary beta carotene levels are high, cancer rates tend to be lower. Several classes of cancers may be prevented by a diet that is rich in carotenes, including breast, stomach, lung, liver, oral, esophageal, bladder, cervical, melanoma, rectal, pancreatic, and prostate.
Historically, when the correlation of fruits and vegetables was uncovered, lowered cancer risk was attributed to fiber content. Fiber continues to be recognized for its role in the prevention of colon cancer. However, before fiber, the theory was that much of the cancer-reducing power was a result of higher vitamin C intake. Since fruits and vegetables are a good source of this essential nutrient, people who eat them get more vitamin C than those who don’t. Vitamin C has many important functions in our bodies, including antioxidant properties and immune system support. Coming full circle, it now appears that beta carotene and other carotenoids are also potent antioxidants and immune system stimulants.
Currently, one of the most important theories of aging is based on uncontrolled free radical formation. (Plus, it is recognized that free radicals play a part in the origins of both cancer and heart disease.) Carotenoids, acting as antioxidants, neutralize free radicals, thus preventing the damage caused by these highly reactive molecules. As mentioned, carotenoids also have important immune modulating effects. In addition, beta carotene is converted in the liver to vitamin A, which may have even more profound effects on cancer resistance than beta carotene.
Carrots and Your Heart
The benefits of carotenoids extend to the health of our hearts. Well known physician Dr. Dean Ornish has conducted numerous dietary studies involving patients with heart disease. Original analyses of Dr. Ornish’s protocol pointed to the reduction of dietary fats as the basis of the beneficial results of the Ornish Diet. However, his studies have shown conclusively that two simple steps significantly reduce virtually every type of cardiovascular disease. The steps are 1) reducing processed fats in the diet (the kinds of fats used to fry fast foods) and 2) increasing one’s intake of fruits and vegetables.
Carotenoids protect the heart with their antioxidant effects on cholesterol. LDL (“bad” cholesterol) carries cholesterol and fat into the arteries. It is designated as “bad” because the fat and cholesterol load it carries is highly vulnerable to oxidation (free radical attack). As particles of LDL are oxidized, the body tries to protect us from further injury. It sends out immune cell defenders to engulf the damaged particles. Unfortunately, the swollen immune cells become embedded in the walls of the arteries. This is the beginning of the formation of atherosclerotic plaque. Eventually, this process narrows the arterial walls, setting the scene for heart problems and even death.
When vitamin E (another essential nutrient and a powerful antioxidant) is used up in antioxidant activities, beta carotene takes over. Like vitamin E, beta carotene protects against the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. LDL oxidation (and the subsequent narrowing of the arterial walls) does not occur until the “second line of defense” erected by carotenoids is exhausted. In a study using physicians as participants, the authors wrote a glowing conclusion of the benefits of beta carotene. They found that diets high in carotene-rich fruits and vegetables were associated with a lower risk of heart disease, and with nearly one-half the incidence of cardiovascular events.
It is general knowledge that smokers are at a particularly high risk for heart attack. They are at even greater danger when levels of beta carotene and lutein (another carotenoid) are low. In a study of ninety-one African-American women from thirty to sixty-nine years of age, researchers found that antioxidant nutrients, including lutein and zeaxanthin, were lower among the smokers. More importantly, they found that levels of carotenoids in the blood went down as levels of smoking went up. The researchers concluded, “This reduction by smoking on the serum concentrations of antioxidant carotenoids may pose a serious health risk to low-income populations already at higher risk for many chronic diseases. Less than 30 percent of the women in this study had serum concentrations of beta carotene in the range necessary for optimal health….” (Pamuk, 1994)
Beta carotene isn’t the only carotene that confers benefits to the heart. Preliminary research shows that several carotenoids are protective. Lycopene, for example, protects against heart disease and cancer.
Or, “Is Pizza a Health Food After All?” Beta carotene is just one of the amazing nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. Lycopene is another carotenoid with powerful antioxidant capabilities. Its concentration in body tissues tends to be higher than all other carotenoids. Primarily found in tomatoes, lycopene appears to be better absorbed when the tomatoes are cooked, as in tomato sauce and ketchup.
Several studies have confirmed that this antioxidant can help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. By examining the relationship between carotenoids and the risk of prostate cancer in 47,000 men, Harvard researchers concluded that lycopene is specifically protective of the prostate gland. Men who enjoy the greatest amounts of lycopene in the diet (6.5 mg or more daily) show a 21 percent decrease in the risk of prostate cancer compared with those men who eat the least.
Lycopene may also help reduce the risk of cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and pre-cancerous changes of the cervix, according to the www.healthnotes.com website. An Italian study showed that the more tomato products eaten regularly, the lower the risk of cancer of the digestive tract.
Besides tomatoes, lycopene is also found in watermelon, pink grapefruit and guava. Oddly, tomato juice may not be a good source of lycopene. For some reason, lycopene appears to be poorly absorbed from this source.
Astaxanthin – Say What?!
Although it is yet to become a household word, astaxanthin (asta ZAN thun) is clearly one of the most amazing natural substances yet discovered. It has demonstrated benefits in five areas:
• It is the most powerful antioxidant known.
• It is a highly effective anti-inflammatory.
• It protects the eyes and the brain.
• It increases energy and endurance.
• It improves skin appearance.
In 1999, natural astaxanthin from microalgae became the first source of astaxanthin to get the go-ahead from the FDA for sales as a human dietary supplement. Studies completed to date reveal the antioxidant power of astaxanthin. In one, astaxanthin was measured against vitamin E and several other antioxidants. It was found have up to 550 times the antioxidant activity of vitamin E and 10 times that of beta carotene. Another comparison, conducted at Creighton University, measured the relative antioxidant capacities of beta carotene, pine bark extract (as Pycnogenol), vitamins E and C, and several others. A form of astaxanthin grown in Hawaii ranged from 14 to over 60 times stronger than any of the other antioxidant contenders.2
2 The Creighton study was conducted by D. Bagchi, using Bio-Astin, a microalgae astaxanthin product produced in Hawaiin waters by Cyanotech.
In studies conducted by independent laboratories, natural astaxanthin was found to reduce pain and increase mobility in people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and carpal tunnel. A study of people with tennis elbow resulted in a 93 percent improvement in grip strength in only eight weeks. Because it crosses the blood-brain barrier, animal studies have shown the potential of astaxanthin to protect the eyes and the brain. Studies with humans have shown improved visual acuity – with depth perception improved by 46 percent. (Sawaki, et al, 2002.)
There is so much more that can be said about this miraculous natural substance that we will be publishing an issue of Nutrition News completely devoted to astaxanthin.
The carotenoid lutein is primarily found in our eyes. It is concentrated in an area of the retina called the macula, along with a “sister carotenoid,” zeaxanthin. The macula is responsible for sharp and detailed vision. It is thought that it may act as a filter to protect the retina from potentially damaging forms of light.
Exposure of the retina to light and oxygen is a mechanism by which free radicals are produced. Due to their yellow color, both zeaxanthin and lutein, absorb blue light, one of the light spectrums that is most damaging to the retina. These two antioxidant carotenoids may help protect us from age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in senior citizens. In addition, lutein may protect us against artery thickening, a sign of atherosclerosis.
Dietary sources of lutein are spinach, kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce, leeks, peas, and egg yolks. Although one would have to consume about 3 cups of spinach per day to receive the amount of lutein needed to protect the eye (about 6 mg daily), it is important to include green foods in the diet. According to the research, adults with the highest dietary intake of lutein had a 57 percent decreased risk of macular degeneration compared with people with the lowest intake of lutein-rich foods.
Research completed at the University of Utah shows that patients diagnosed with macular degeneration can restore normal lutein levels in their eyes by taking lutein supplements. Supplemental lutein is made from marigold flowers.
In addition a Harvard study has shown that lutein does more than protect the eyes from sun damage. It can also protect the skin.
Count Your Carrots
Load up your shopping cart with a variety of fruits and vegetables and chose those with the brightest colors. As Marsha Zimmerman, author of Eat Your Colors, explains, “The colors of vegetables and fruit – various shades of yellow, orange, red, and green – are due to plant pigments. These pigments are not just ordinary colors, but powerful disease-fighting phytochemicals.” (Zimmerman, 2001)
There are over one hundred thirty varieties of vegetables and over thirty varieties of fresh fruits on the market in the US. Many of these are good sources of carotenoids. We recommend including at least five servings of fresh vegetables per day and at least two of fresh fruit. Remember that the fruits and vegetables with the brightest colors tend to provide the most carotenoids.
Prepare spinach and other leafy greens, peppers, corn, green plants, red cabbage, sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and squash, plus legumes, grains, and seeds. Although carrot sticks and pepper slices are good for snacks, the favorite is fruit. Provide apricots, watermelon, apples, peaches, guavas, pomegranates, cantaloup, and cherries. Highly processed versions of fruits and vegetables are no substitute for fresh. Many nutrients are lost in processing.
How can we get enough vegetables without spending too much time in the kitchen? Think creative, bright colors when planning your meals! Enjoy a large salad for lunch, dressed with olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice. Homemade soups are also excellent, and easily made in large quantities for reheating during the busy week. For dinner each evening, enjoy another salad, and at least two more vegetables. One of the easiest things to do is to buy bagged spinach and toss a handful into eggs, potatoes, salad, other veggies. Buy prepared vegetables. Bagged vegetables to steam, mixed greens for salads, and mini carrots for snacks all make it easier to include more vegetables. Also, powdered green foods are tremendously rich in nutrients and very convenient to add every day.
What About Supplements?
Do we eat enough carotenes in our diet? Probably not. The average American eats less than two servings of both fruits and vegetables per day, and one-quarter of those servings is in the form of French fries. Even US government studies show that “many Americans may be consuming levels of antioxidant nutrients that are considerably lower than optimal for the prevention of chronic disease.” (Block, 1993)
As mentioned, one way to fortify your fruit and vegetable intake is to use supplements. Powdered algae (such as blue-green, chlorella, and spirulina) and grasses (wheat and barley) are a quick and easy way to increase your intake of carotenoids (and other phyonutrients). Although concentrated by varying drying processes, these are still whole foods. Many of these kinds of products contain other nutrient-dense foods besides algae and grasses. Mixed with water, juice, or in a protein smoothie, they provide a powerful nutritional punch.
Beta carotene (the vitamin A precursor), lutein and zeaxanthin (protectors of eye health), lycopene (tomatoes against prostate cancer), and astaxanthin (antioxidant + ) are all available as individual supplements. If cancer, heart disease or eye problems run in the family or you just want to boost your nutrition, supplementation is a good adjunct to a healthy diet. The following supplement ranges are provided on www.supplementinfo.org:
• Beta carotene (use the natural form from Dunaliella
salina), 6-30 mg (6 mg, most common)
• Lutein (marigolds), 2-40 mg (6 mg)
• Lycopene (tomatoes), 2-6 mg (4 mg)
• Zeaxanthin, 1000 mcg
• Astaxanthin, 4 mg3
3 This recommendation is not from supplementinfo.org rather it is from Cyanotech. The company bases its amount on a quarter pound serving of sockeye salmon.
What’s To Eat?
Here is an easy-to-make, delicious recipe using spinach. Popeye would love it! So will you.
Sauteed Spinach with Leeks and Shallots
1 bag of fresh baby spinach
1 shallot, peeled and sliced thin
1 leek (white part only, washed carefully and sliced thin)
1 tablespoon butter, olive oil, or macadamia nut oil
Wash the spinach, drain carefully to remove as much water as possible. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat until lightly bubbling. Add the shallot and leek and sauté for a few minutes, until the vegetables are lightly browned. Add the spinach, and stir until the spinach has wilted. Enjoy immediately.
Incidentally, arugula, parsley, and/or a few basil leaves can be mixed in with the spinach. Also, don’t be stopped by the leeks and shallots. Regular onions can be used – brown, white, or even red. Your second choice from the onion family could be chopped scallions, including some of the green tops. A clove or two of minced garlic can be sauteed with the onions.
My favorite way to serve this dish is with eggs. My preference is to top the spinach with a couple farm fresh eggs cooked over-easy. Poached would also be good. Others prefer the eggs scrambled and served on the side.
FYI: Egg yolks are a rich source of heart-protective lutein and zeaxanthin. Adding egg yolks to the diet can increase plasma lutein by 28 percent and zeaxanthin by 14 percent. Egg yolk is a highly bioavailable source of these important carotenoids.
Nutrition News „ 2008 VOL XXXII, No. 6
A tribute and guide to the health enhancing properties of certain colorful veggies and fruits.
Beta carotene is the best known of the carotenes. It is a fat-soluble pigment which converts to vitamin A in the healthy body.
The carotenoids are yellow to deep red and include lutein, lycopene, astaxanthin, and zeaxanthin.
Red, Yellow, Orange Colors Produce Vibrant Health
Imagine the rich green, orange, red, purple, and yellow fruits and veggies awaiting you.
We discuss in detail the benefits of eating the foods containing these pigments.
Find the answer to “Is pizza a health food after all?”