Beta-Carotene in Carrots (and How its Bioavailability is Affected by Cooking Etc)
Carrots are one of the best natural sources of beta-carotene. According to nutrient data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 100-gram serving (about 3.5 ounces) of raw carrots provides about 8285 micrograms of beta-carotene. As heat reduces the concentration of water in vegetables, cooked carrots have an even higher concentration of beta-carotene: about 8332 micrograms per a 100-gram serving.
But it's not all about the amount of beta-carotene. If your body cannot absorb the beta-carotene you get from foods, this yellow-orange pigment will be of little use. In fact, there are a number of factors that influence how much, or little, of the absolute amount of beta-carotene found in a specific vegetable or fruit your body will absorb. Below, we take a look at some factors that promote the bioavailability of beta-carotene from carrots (in case you missed the memo, bioavailability refers to your body's ability to absorb and use nutrients like beta-carotene).
Unlike many other vitamins, beta-carotene is not easily destroyed by cooking, especially if you only cook your vegetables for a short time. In fact, cooking can actually help break down vegetables' thick cell walls and effectively release beta-carotene, thereby making beta-carotene more readily available for your body to use. A study published in the December 2003 edition of the European Journal of Nutrition, for example, found that the study participants absorbed significantly more beta-carotene from meals containing cooked, pureed carrots than from meals containing raw chopped carrots. In another study, published in the May 1998 issue of The Journal of Nutrition, women who ate cooked carrots absorbed three times as much beta-carotene as women who ate their carrots raw.
But when it comes to cooking carrots, or most other carotenoid-rich foods for that matter, there are also some tradeoffs. While cooking improves the bioavailability of beta-carotene, it can destroy a significant amount of heat-sensitive nutrients like vitamin C, thiamin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine and folate. Therefore, any claims that suggest that cooked carrots are better for you than raw carrots, or vice versa, are meaningless – it all depends on your individual health goals. For example, if your goal is to improve beta-carotene uptake, then cooked carrots have some significant advantages. But if you are trying to increase your intake of vitamin C or B complex vitamins (such as thiamin and folate), then uncooked carrots are the winner.
Beta-carotene is a fat-soluble nutrient, which means that it requires some fat in the diet to aid its absorption. But you don't need much fat for that: a study published in the September 1998 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that as little as 3 to 5 grams of fat per meal would already be sufficient to have a significant positive impact on how well your body absorbs carotenoids. If you are using carrots in a salad, all you will need to do is add a tiny amount of oil or an oil-based dressing to your meal: just a teaspoon of olive oil, for example, already provides 4.5 grams of dietary fat! Or, if you like to use grated carrots or carrot juice in fruit smoothies, add some seeds or nuts into the blender before you hit the blend button.
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