If you follow the general recommendation to make fruits and vegetables a major component of your diet, you probably get enough vitamins, minerals and fiber to meet your daily needs. If the produce on your plate is typically red, orange, deep yellow or dark green, chances are you’re also getting plenty of beta-carotene, the antioxidant compound that your body can convert into vitamin A. Beets are a prime example of how color indicates – but doesn’t guarantee – a high beta-carotene content.
The bulbous root of the beet plant can be white, yellow, pink, purple or even striped, but you’re more likely to come across the familiar red variety at your local grocery store. Although beets are a good source of potassium, iron and folate, they don’t contain a significant amount of beta-carotene and, as a result, are low in vitamin A. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 1-cup serving of beets – whether raw or cooked – supplies no more than 40 micrograms of beta-carotene, an amount that translates to less than 3 percent of the daily value for vitamin A.
Beets are botanically related to spinach and Swiss chard, which may explain why the slightly bitter flavor of their edible greens is similar to chard. Like all dark leafy green vegetables, beet greens are an excellent source of beta-carotene and are accordingly high in vitamin A. For just under 20 calories, a standard 2-cup serving of raw beet greens provides about 2,880 micrograms of beta-carotene, which amounts to 96 percent of the daily value for vitamin A. Cooked beet greens are more concentrated by volume, supplying about 40 calories and about 6,600 micrograms of beta-carotene – or 220 percent of the daily value for vitamin A – per 1-cup serving.
As with other carotenoids, there are no dietary intake recommendations for beta-carotene. While all carotenoids are antioxidants, only a few – including beta-carotene – act as precursors to vitamin A. Because vitamin A is stored in your liver, beta-carotene conversion decreases when your stores are adequate.
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, however. According to the American Dietetic Association, it’s recommended that women get 700 micrograms retinol activity equivalent, or RAE, of vitamin A each day. The vitamin A in animal products and fortified foods is preformed, which means that 1 microgram of vitamin A from milk is equivalent to 1 microgram RAE. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, you must consume 12 micrograms of beta-carotene to get 1 microgram of vitamin A.
While dark leafy green vegetables are some of the best sources of beta-carotene, sweet potatoes are richer in beta-carotene than any other food. Raw carrots, canned pumpkin and many kinds of winter squash are also especially high in beta-carotene. Since beta-carotene is fat-soluble, it’s best to consume it with a small amount of fat to ensure that your body absorbs it properly. Lightly saute beet greens in olive oil and toss them with some fresh lemon juice and toasted pine nuts for a light, nutritious side dish. Use raw beet greens instead of lettuce in a fresh salad; add diced avocado or dry-roasted sunflower seeds to make the beta-carotene more bioavailable.
- Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University: Carotenoids
- Wellness Foods A to Z; Sheldon Margen, M.D., et al.
- American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide; Roberta Larson Duyff, M.S., R.D.
- The Color Code; James A. Joseph, Ph.D., et al.
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.