Carotenoids are a type of plant cellular pigment that play a role in photosynthesis and give many plants a red, orange or yellow color. They absorb specific wavelengths of light and aid in the photosynthetic process of converting it into metabolic energy. Carotenoids also act as antioxidants by neutralizing free radicals that could harm the plant. The consumption of carotenoids can also provide numerous health benefits.
Carotenoids have anti-inflammatory properties and can provide immune system support. Because the human body does not naturally produce carotenoids, people must eat a plant containing carotenoids to experience these health benefits. Plants that are red, orange or yellow, such as carrots, tomatoes and bell peppers, contain carotenoids. The human body cannot absorb carotenoids unless they are accompanied by a fat.
There are hundreds of different types of carotenoids, all of which fall into one of two major chemical classification groups. Xanthophylls are carotenoids that contain oxygen and appear more yellow. Carotenes are carotenoids composed of hydrocarbons. They appear more orange and red and do not contain oxygen.
Additionally, there are two nutritional classifications for carotenoids: provitamin A, meaning the carotenoid can turn into vitamin A after consumption, or non-provitamin A, meaning the carotenoid cannot become vitamin A. This nutritional classification is useful in determining the potential nutritional benefits of carotenoid foods. Vitamin A provides health benefits for the eyes, mucus membranes and immune system.