Clueless About Beta-Carotene?

Bewildered by the recent bad press on beta-carotene? Feeling paranoid now about sweet potatoes? Here’s our advice, based on the questions we’ve heard most:

If I take a beta-carotene supplement, should I stop? It depends on the dose. Three large studies have now found that in high daily doses (20 to 30 milligrams, or the beta-carotene of four to six carrots), beta-carotene supplements don’t appear to offer any heart or cancer benefits (or any harm) to nonsmokers–but they may up the risk of lung cancer in current and former smokers or men exposed to asbestos (studies were reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, April 14, 1994 and in an National Cancer Institute conference in January). Action: If you still choose to take a special supplement of beta-carotene, look for one with no more than 6 mg. (equal to the recommended vitamin A for a man).

If I take a multivitamin with beta-carotene, should I stop? I think taking a multi with recommended levels of vitamins and minerals makes sense (along with the BEST diet possible!). Action: Check the vitamin A level. In many multis, vitamin A comes partly form beta-carotene. Up to 150 percent of the Daily Value (or U.S.RDA) for vitamin A is reasonable, even if all the vitamin A comes form beta-carotene. At doses like this, there’s no evidence of harm.

Should I cut down on sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cantaloupe and other beta-carotene big shots? Action: Don’t even think about it! Study after study shows that people who eat the most beta-carotene in fruits and vegetables, smokers included, get less cancer and heart disease. Probably it’s all the nutrients in produce–not beta-carotene alone–that keep us healthy. Bottom line? “Against cancer and heart disease, eating cheeseburgers and taking a beta-carotene pill isn’t going to cut it,” says cancer researcher Gregory Kalemkerian, M.D., of Detroit’s Wayne State University. Stick with carrot sticks!

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