Beta-Carotene vs. Retinol: Are You Getting Enough Vitamin A?

vitamin ABy Dr. Michelle Kmiec

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

“The safest way to get Vitamin A is from beta-carotene” has become the latest mantra to spark the beta-carotene vs. retinol debate (ad nauseum) on many health sites lately. Unfortunately, many of these strong opinions are actually based on special-interest-based science, rather than on human biology and chemistry.

When it comes to beta-carotene vs. retinol, groups such as vegetarians and vegans argue that Vitamin A (retinol) derived from animal sources (fish, liver or eggs for example) is not necessary, since beta-carotene is available via plant sources (fruits and vegetables). So, the  idea (or hope) is that we can get all the Vitamin A  we need from fruits and vegetables.

Both Beta-carotene and Retinol are Important for Health

Both forms of Vitamin A (beta-carotene and retinol) are indeed important for health. However, if you are one who believes that you can achieve optimal levels of Vitamin A via beta-carotene sources,  then the looming question here is… how much fruits and vegetables do we need to eat in order to achieve optimal levels of Vitamin A that the body can actually use?

Let’s see how the body goes about absorbing Vitamin A as beta-carotene.

When you eat a vegetable in the hopes of gaining Vitamin A – such as a carrot – your body must first go through a series of processes before it can absorb it. The carotene must first be converted to a form of Vitamin A that the body can use – it must convert the carotene into retinol.  And in order for this to happen, certain physiological systems need to be functioning properly, namely:

  1. You need a healthy intestinal tract and sufficient bile salts supplied by the gall bladder.
  2. You need specific enzymes to break-down the carotene to convert it to retinol.

Let’s assume that these systems are, in fact, working optimally. Even then, you would not produce a 1:1 ratio of carotene: retinol. In fact, the ratio is more like 6:1 respectively. In other words, for every six units of beta-carotene you consume, only one unit of retinol is produced. You would have to eat a heck of a lot of fruits and vegetables to even achieve the RDI of Vitamin A… and just getting people to eat any fruits and vegetables has been a hard pressed issue for decades!

Nevertheless, the FDA – in all its wisdom – actually agreed to count sources like ketchup, canned tomato soup, and other pseudo-vegetables with the nutritional labeling of beta-carotene. The following statement demonstrates the ridiculousness of this, as stated in the Vitamin A Knavery, by  Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD:

“The label for a can of tomatoes says that tomatoes contain Vitamin A, even though the only source of true Vitamin A in the tomatoes is the microscopic insect parts.”

Is Your Digestive System Converting Beta-Carotene to a ‘Usable’ Form of Vitamin A?

The conversion from beta-carotene to Vitamin A requires a healthy digestive system. But with entire aisles in drug and grocery stores catering to anti-acids, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating, this clearly isn’t the case for many people. With so many unhealthy digestive issues being more of the “norm” than “abnormal” these days, how many people’s bodies can successfully make the conversion from beta-carotene to Vitamin A?

Children, especially infants, don’t make the conversion at all! Yet, we feed them baby food such as strained carrots and spinach, both carrying high amounts of beta-carotene.

Do you ever wonder if it is human nature to always act so illogically?!

In addition, there are many factors that deplete the body’s supply of Vitamin A (and other nutrients as well) such as:

  • Prescription drugs
  • Excessive alcohol
  • Processed and fast foods
  • Pesticides
  • Stress; physical and mental
  • Zinc deficiency
  • Low fat diet fads

And how prevalent are these factors in society today?

How Does the Conversion from Beta-Carotene to Retinol Occur?

As mentioned, you need bile salts in order for this conversion to take place. Bile is needed to breakdown fats. And because most vegetables, by their very nature are low in fat, very little bile is produced when they are consumed.

On one hand, this sounds like a great thing. However on the other hand, the lack of fat (and thus the resulting low bile production) actually prevents the carotene from being converted to the usable form of Vitamin A – retinol.

Of course, if you simply added some fat to your vegetables (such as butter) you would have a shot at making the conversion!  But in today’s society, we are still stuck on the idea that a low-fat diet is a healthier diet… and that of course includes butter.

So what can we do? Why not eat foods that contain Vitamin A from a more direct source such as: organ liver, eggs, and butter (to name a few) or from a supplement like fish oils or cod liver oil (both high in retinol)? Unfortunately much so-called “health information” is inundated with myths about what is healthy… such as:

  1. Your cholesterol will rise if you eat eggs.
  2. Butter is “bad” fat.
  3. Animal products are “unhealthy”.
  4. Vitamin A (Retinol) is toxic.

So, what’s the bottom line?

If you have zero digestive issues, are in perfect health, eat at least twelve full servings of fruits and vegetables a day (and counting ketchup or any processed food as a synthetic vegetable is not allowed), allow yourself to eat “real” fat, never eat processed or fast foods, and have no stress in your life, then congratulations! You may have an excellent shot at getting sufficient amounts of Vitamin A (retinol) from beta-carotene!

If you do not fall into that category, however, then it’s highly likely you are not converting beta-carotene to Vitamin A efficiently at all. The obvious answer to this dilemma is to get Vitamin A from animal sources, and the simplest means is to take cod liver oil. Vitamin A is far too important for human health to allow yourself to become unknowingly deficient, either due to not being able to convert beta-carotene to retinol, or due to the misconception that retinol is toxic (Read more: Is Retinol Really Toxic?)

But sadly, that old remedy of “a spoonful of cod liver oil a day” that mothers gave their children for hundreds of years has been replaced with a myth:  the myth that retinol is toxic. However, advocates for Vitamin A – as retinol – feel strongly that many of today’s medical conditions would disappear if this old remedy would make a come back and become status quo once again.

Previous articles by Dr. Michelle:

About the author:
is a licensed chiropractor who also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Biology. She is life-long athlete who after curing herself 100% naturally from autoimmune neurological symptoms and anxiety, became an avid nutrition health researcher/promoter, author of Healthcare Freedom Revolution: Exposing the Lies, Deceit and Greed of the Medical Profession, and Founder of the website Online Holistic Health.

You can follow Online Holistic Health on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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