When it comes to eye health, lutein and zeaxanthin are the power couple of the produce world. These pigments belong to the xanothophyll family of carotenoids, and give rise to the green-yellow hues found in vegetables and fruits. Dark green leafy vegetables and egg yolks are abundant sources, but finding ample amounts in fruit is challenging. Green and orange-yellow fruits provide a smidgen of this dynamic duo, so eating a variety of fruits is essential to amass these potent pigments.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin Protect the Eyes
Of the 600 carotenoids found in nature, only lutein and zeaxanthin cross into the brain and collect in the macula region of the retina, forming the “macula lutea” or yellow spot. These macular pigments serve as color filters or internal sunglasses. They protect the eye from sun damage by filtering blue light and quenching free oxygen radicals that over time may contribute to cataracts and age-related macular degeneration or AMD, a serious eye disease that can lead to blindness. Some athletes’ sight may also benefit from lutein and zeaxanthin, since both reduce visual discomfort and improve photostress recovery after staring into a bright light. For example, ball players who look into a bright sky to catch a fly ball may experience less visual pain and recover more quickly from temporary light blindness if their eye tissue is rich in these macular pigments. Increased visibility in hazy sky conditions and improved object contrast sharpen visual acuity, making it easier to see a tennis ball against a blue-sky background.
Fruits with Both Lutein and Zeaxanthin
According to the Centers for Disease Control, when it comes to produce, Americans prefer fruit to vegetables. The International Markets Bureau reports that orange juice is most popular juice in the United States. This juice is also the best source of both lutein and zeaxanthin. Nearly a cup of orange juice contains 33 micrograms of lutein and 26 micrograms of zeaxanthin, plus it is a great source of vitamin C, which appears to boost lutein absorption. Although there isn’t a recommended daily intake for either lutein or zeaxanthin, studies show that 6 milligrams of lutein reduces AMD and cataract risk. That means you would have to drink about 182 cups of orange juice to get the recommended amount of lutein. Green and red grapes along with raw peaches and nectarines also contain both xanthophylls, but the amounts are similarly small -- under 50 micrograms of lutein and less than 10 micrograms of zeaxanthin per 100-gram serving.
Of the fruits, kiwi is richest in lutein, providing 171 micrograms per 100 grams or one large kiwi. Honeydew and mango have less than 25 micrograms per 100-gram serving, but pumpkin and yellow squash contain 40 to150 micrograms per 100 grams or about 3/4 cup. Temperature, storage conditions and even plant variety and ripeness can change xanthophyll content. To get the most from your produce, look for deep green or vibrant orange pigments, and store intact produce in a cool area.
Eat a Variety of Green-Yellow Produce
Finding significant amounts of both lutein and zeaxanthin in fruits can be challenging, but vegetables like cooked kale and spinach are loaded with lutein, containing the recommended 6 miligrams in each 1/2- or 3/4-cup serving, respectively. Cilantro, parsley and romaine lettuce are good sources, too, with 4 to 8 milligrams in nearly a cup. Orange peppers are the richest source of zeaxanthin, with a whopping 2 milligrams per 1-cup serving. By eating a diet rich in colorful produce, you may be seeing blue skies for years to come.
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: Lutein: A Valuable Ingredient in Fruits and Vegetables
- Journal of Food Composition and Analysis: Xanthophyll (Lutein and Zeaxanthin) Content in Fruits, Vegetables and Corn and Egg Products
- Journal of Food Science: The Influence of Dietary Lutein and Zeaxanthin on Visual Performance
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: Lutein Absorption is Facilitated with Cosupplementation of Ascorbic Acid in Young Adults
- Optometry and Vision Science: Macular Pigment and Visual Performance Under Glare Conditions
- Mortality Weekly Review: State Specific Trends in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Adults—2000-2009
Martina Cartwright has been writing about nutrition for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured in several medical journals, including Psychology Today Online and "IDEA Fitness Journal." She has also contributed to the magazines "People," "SELF" and "Health," and frequently speaks at medical symposia. Cartwright holds a Ph.D. in nutritional science and bio-molecular chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.