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Dietary β-carotene is the most important precursor of vitamin A. However, the determination of the efficiency of in vivo conversion of β-carotene to vitamin A requires sensitive and safe techniques. It presents the following challenges: 1) circulating β-carotene concentration cannot be altered by eating a meal containing ≤6 mg β-carotene; 2) because retinol concentrations are homeostatically controlled, the conversion of β-carotene into vitamin A cannot be estimated accurately in well-nourished humans by assessing changes in serum retinol after supplementation with β-carotene. In the past half-century, techniques using radioisotopes of β-carotene and vitamin A, depletion-repletion with vitamin A and β-carotene supplements, measurement of postprandial chylomicron fractions after consumption of a β-carotene dose, and finally, stable isotopes as tracers to follow the absorption and conversion of β-carotene in humans have been developed. The reported values for β-carotene to vitamin A conversion showed a wide variation from 2 μg β-carotene to 1 μg retinol (for synthetic pure β-carotene in oil) and 28 μg β-carotene to 1 μg retinol (for β-carotene from vegetables). In recent years, a stable isotope reference method (IRM) was developed that used labeled synthetic β-carotene. The IRM method provided evidence that the conversion of β-carotene to vitamin A is likely dose dependent. With the development of intrinsically labeled plant foods harvested from a hydroponic system with heavy water, vitamin A activity of stable isotope-labeled biosynthetic β-carotene from various foods consumed by humans was studied. The efficacy of plant foods rich in β-carotene, such as natural (spinach, carrots, spirulina), hybrid (high-β-carotene yellow maize), and bioengineered (Golden Rice) foods, to provide vitamin A has shown promising results. The results from these studies will be of practical importance in recommendations for the use of pure β-carotene and foods rich in β-carotene in providing vitamin A and ultimately in preventing either overconsumption or poor intake of vitamin A by humans.


Guangwen Tang. Techniques for measuring vitamin A activity from β-carotene. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2012 Nov;96(5):1185S-8S

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PMID: 23053556

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