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Vitamin A 101: More than meets the eye

Posted: Feb 01, 2024 7 minute read GAR

Remember being coaxed as a child with, “Eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes”? This age-old advice has its roots in the wonders of vitamin A, a key player in carrots known for championing our vision. But how many of us realise that beyond this well-known superpower, vitamin A quietly contributes to other essential roles in our health, from strengthening our immune system to keeping our skin healthy?

Let’s peel back the layers to reveal the lesser-known, yet equally powerful, attributes of this nutrient.

What is vitamin A? Why is it important in our nutrition?

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is crucial for maintaining various bodily functions. It exists in two primary forms: preformed vitamin A (includes retinol and retinyl esters), found in animal products like fish, meat, and dairy; and provitamin A carotenoids, which are found in plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, palm oil) and are converted by the body into vitamin A.

Vitamin A is well-known for its role in maintaining good vision, especially in low light conditions. It is a component of rhodopsin, a protein in the eyes that helps us see in low light conditions. It also helps the production and function of white blood cells, which help capture and clear bacteria and other pathogens from the bloodstream.

Did you know?

There are several distinct classes of carotenoids – vitamin A precursors which must be converted by the human body into usable retinoids. More than 500 carotenoids have been identified; fewer than 10 percent can be made into vitamin A in the body. Still, many that cannot be converted to vitamin A have healthful effects – lycopene, for example, has been shown to help prevent prostate cancer.

Vitamin A’s contributions also encompass the maintenance and repair of skin tissue. It keeps the skin moist and resilient, making it a common ingredient in various dermatological treatments. This vitamin is also crucial for growth and development, particularly in children and embryos during pregnancy, underscoring its importance across different life stages.

Vitamin A is often associated with beta-carotene. Are they the same?

Vitamin A and beta-carotene are closely linked in the world of nutrition, yet they exhibit distinct characteristics and roles.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin found in two forms: preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids. Beta-carotene, on the other hand, is a provitamin A carotenoid. It’s the pigment responsible for the vibrant orange colour of many fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, crude palm oil, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.

The fundamental difference between the two lies in their sources and the way the body uses them. Preformed vitamin A is readily available for use by the body, while beta-carotene needs to be converted into retinol, an active form of vitamin A, for the body to utilise it. This conversion is a beneficial process that helps the body regulate vitamin A levels and reduce toxicity risks from excessive intake. The process varies for each individual, influenced by health, diet, and dietary fat. Additionally, beta-carotene serves as an antioxidant, offering health benefits independent of its role as a vitamin A precursor.

Vitamin A Beta-Carotene
Definition Vitamin A is a lipid-soluble vitamin primarily in animal sources that contains fat Beta-carotene is a lipid-soluble organic compound readily found in orange and yellow plant structures that act as a provitamin A
Popular name Known as retinol Known as provitamin A
Form Pure form that can be obtained from animal sources Precursor that can be obtained from plant sources
Best Sources Some of the best sources are cod liver, liver, kidneys, cheese, butter, egg yolk, and oily fish Some of the best sources are parsley, spinach, kale, crude palm oil, tomatoes, rosehips, carrots, and bell peppers
Storage and Metabolism Stored in the liver and fatty tissues Converted into vitamin A in the intestinal mucous membranes
Function Required for the production of rhodopsin Serves as a powerful antioxidant

Main differences between vitamin A and beta-carotene1

How much vitamin A do I need to consume?

Your required intake of vitamin A varies based on age and gender. The recommended daily allowances for preformed vitamin A and provitamin A carotenoids are given in micrograms (mcg) of retinol activity equivalents (RAE).

Life Stage Recommended Amount
Birth to 6 months 400 mcg RAE
Infant 7-12 months 500 mcg RAE
Children 1-3 years 300 mcg RAE
Children 4-8 years 400 mcg RAE
Children 9-13 years 600 mcg RAE
Teen males 14-18 years 900 mcg RAE
Teen females 14-18 years 700 mcg RAE
Adult males 900 mcg RAE
Adult females 700 mcg RAE
Pregnant teens 750 mcg RAE
Pregnant adults 770 mcg RAE
Breastfeeding teens 1,200 mcg RAE
Breastfeeding adults 1,300 mcg RAE

Daily recommended intake of vitamin A based on age and gender2

Too much (or little) of a good thing is never good: Vitamin A deficiency and toxicity

Vitamin A plays a leading role in vision, immune function, and skin health. However, it’s important to maintain a balanced intake, as both deficiency and excess can lead to health issues. This highlights the importance of moderation, as imbalances in either direction can be detrimental.

Vitamin A deficiency is one of the four major global nutritional deficiencies, and is particularly common in certain parts of the world. It is often linked to a diet lacking in colourful fruits and vegetables or in countries where staple foods do not provide enough of this vital nutrient. The consequences of this deficiency are not trivial; it can lead to impaired vision, particularly in reduced light, where night blindness is one of the first signs. In more severe cases, it can lead to complete vision loss. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable, with the deficiency impacting growth, fetal development, and causing increasing susceptibility to infections.

On the flip side, an excess of vitamin A, known as hypervitaminosis A, can be equally detrimental. While rare, especially from diet alone, overconsumption of preformed vitamin A through supplements can lead to toxicity. Symptoms range from headaches and blurred vision to more severe effects such as liver damage and even neurological symptoms. The body stores excess amount of this fat-soluble vitamin, primarily in the liver, leading to a cumulative effect over time. Therefore, moderation is the key, and understanding the right dosage, tailored to individual needs, is essential.

Exploring palm oil as a key player in combating vitamin A deficiency

In the quest to address vitamin A deficiency, a global health concern impacting millions, palm oil is an indispensable actor. This widely used vegetable oil is not just a staple in cooking but also a potent source of vitamin A. Its rich red-orange hue, due to high levels of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), reflects its nutritional value and its potential role in mitigating the deficiency of this essential nutrient.

Did you know?

Crude palm oil is considered the world’s richest natural plant source of carotenoids. Its retinol (provitamin A) equivalent content has been estimated at 15 times that of carrots and 300 times that of tomatoes.

Vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to severe visual impairment and an increased risk of infectious diseases, remains a critical issue, especially in developing countries where dietary intake of the vitamin is often inadequate. Palm oil’s accessibility make it an invaluable resource in these regions. When incorporated into the daily diet, it can significantly boost the intake of vitamin A, helping to improve vision health and enhance immune function.

Palm oil’s versatility and efficiency also make it an ideal candidate for fortifying a range of foods, from everyday cooking oils to processed food, thereby increasing the intake of vitamin A across various demographics. Unlike many vegetable oils whose unsaturated fatty acids are susceptible to oxidation, reducing vitamin A stability in fortification, palm oil’s high saturated fatty acids profile renders it semi-solid at room temperature and more stable against oxidation. This makes it an ideal candidate for fortification. However, the retention of vitamin A in palm oil during cooking still depends on how it’s stored and packaged.

Learn more about palm oil’s part in combating vitamin A deficiency through the infographics below.

Palm Oil's Contributions in Combating Vitamin A Deficiency



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1 Information retrieved from:
2 Information retrieved from:

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