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CANCER AND NUTRITION: CAROTENE

Beta-carotene is the chemical precursor that the body uses to make vitamin A. Carrots account for the major source of beta-carotene in North American diets, yellow-green vegetables in Japan, and red palm oil in West Africa. Studies have indicated that people who consume higher than average amounts of beta-carotene have a lower incidence of cancer, and "it is most unlikely that this association will disappear entirely with future observational studies." It appears that this lower incidence of cancer is attributed to beta-carotene itself, rather than to its conversion for vitamin A. Beta-carotene may inhibit the development of cancer in the following ways: It greatly enhances the immune system. It is a powerful antioxidant, free radical scavenger. Beta-carotene is the most efficient neutralizer of singlet oxygen, the high-energy, destructive molecule.

The normal range of human intake of beta-carotene is a few milligrams per day. However, large daily intakes of beta-carotene appear to be harmless and do not cause vitamin A toxicity. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A only as the body requires it. One or two hundred milligrams per day are regularly prescribed for the treatment of a disease called erythropoietic protoporphyria without causing vitamin A toxicity, liver problems, or any other apparent side effects. The World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives estimated the acceptable daily intake of beta-carotene for a 140-pound adult to be about 350 milligrams per day. In several studies, supplemental beta-carotene in the amount of 30 milligrams per day has been used without harm but has caused oranging of the skin in a select few persons.

Several leading government agencies and I have recommended diets high in beta-carotene ever since the association was made between diets high in beta-carotene content and low rates of cancer. The diet that I recommend contains about 15-20 milligrams of carotene, while the diets recommended by the agencies suggest that a person obtain 5-6 milligrams per day. However, studies done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Intake Survey show that the average American diet provides only 1.5 milligrams of beta-carotene a day, an amount that is much less than that recommended to prevent cancer.

Good sources of beta-carotene include carrots, kale, pumpkins, spinach, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, apricots, cantaloupes, papayas, and peaches. These can be eaten on a daily basis. Beta-carotene is extremely safe and is not toxic in any amount; however, most people do not consume foods containing beta-carotene daily—or at least not enough of them

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Cancer

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