Phytonutrients are the 100,000+ chemicals in plants that ward off disease, pests, radiation from the sun, chemical toxins, and other hazards. Many phytonutrients are antioxidants, and in people, they have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects, among other benefits.
Phytonutrients are often pigments, and the yellow and orange phytonutrients are typically carotenoids. Carotenoids can be divided into two classes: xanthophylls and carotenes.
Xanthophylls contain oxygen and have more yellow pigment. These nutrients also show up in many green-colored foods, but their chlorophyll masks lutein and zeaxanthin pigments. The xanthophyll class includes:
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Lutein and Zeaxanthin are not the same thing. They are found in the same foods and provide similar benefits, so they are sometimes thought to be interchangeable, but they are not. They are isomers of each other, meaning they have a nearly identical chemical structure. However, their slight differences cause them to act in different, important ways in the body.
Unlike alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin do not get converted to vitamin A, once ingested. They are taken up into cell membranes and other lipoproteins. They are thought to work better together.
They are both critical for eye health and are found in high levels in the retina. More zeaxanthin is found in the center of the retina, and more lutein is found in the outer edges of the retina and rods of the eye. The yellow color of your macula (the part of your retina responsible for detailed central vision) is due to its high concentration of zeaxanthin.
Lutein and zeaxanthin protect your eyes through their antioxidant action, warding off free radical damage. They also absorb and filter blue light, which significantly reduces stress on the retina. In a way, these nutrients are your natural, built-in sunglasses (but you definitely need real sunglasses to protect your eyes as well).
Lutein and zeaxanthin are difficult to consume in sufficient quantities in food, so people with Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), a progressive eye disease that can lead to blindness, are often told to take an AREDS (Age-Related Eye Disease Study) supplement. The AREDS formulation supplies lutein, zeaxanthin and other nutrients proven in numerous scientific studies to support eye health and slow the progression of AMD. AREDS are one of the few supplements that most doctors (especially ophthalmologists) agree are beneficial.
Beta-cryptoxanthin is a precursor to Vitamin A. It is found in fewer foods than lutein and zeaxanthin, but is more bio-available and better absorbed. It’s not as well researched as the carotenes, so let’s move on to them.
Carotenes are hydrocarbons and contain no oxygen; they have more orange pigments. This class includes:
Alpha-carotene and Beta-carotene
Alpha-carotene and beta-carotene convert to vitamin A in the body. They are very similar chemically, but there is some evidence that alpha-carotene may be more potent in its benefits.
These important antioxidants protect health when ingested via whole foods, but some studies show that in supplement form they can increase the risk of certain cancers. Get your alpha- and beta-carotenes in whole foods only.
Lycopene has been especially associated with helping to prevent or slow the progression of prostate cancer. Lycopene tends to accumulate in the prostate, which may be why it is helpful. A 2013 survey of other studies found that lycopene—tomato, especially—”may play a modest role in the prevention of prostate cancer.” As is ever the case, further studies are needed. But unless you are allergic to tomatoes, eating them won’t hurt you, and may do a lot of good.
Overview of the Carotenoids: Foods and Benefits
Here’s a chart that shows which yellow/orange phytonutrients are in which foods, and what their associated benefits are:
|Carotenoid||Foods With Highest Levels||Associated Benefits|
|Lutein||Winter squash (butternut, Hubbard, acorn), sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, persimmons, tangerines, mandarins, oranges, honeydew melon, kiwi, peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe, greens (spinach, romaine lettuce, kale, arugula, Swiss chard, collard, turnip, dandelion), corn, bell peppers, parsley, pistachios, egg yolks, paprika, spirulina.||Eye health, skin health, healthy blood cells; slows signs of aging. May protect against atherosclerosis.|
|Zeaxanthin||Winter squash (butternut, Hubbard, acorn), sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, persimmons, tangerines, mandarins, oranges, honeydew melon, kiwi, peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe, greens (spinach, romaine lettuce, kale, arugula, Swiss chard, collard, turnip, dandelion), corn, bell peppers, parsley, pistachios, egg yolks, paprika, spirulina.||Eye health, skin health, healthy blood cells; slows signs of aging.|
May protect against atherosclerosis.
|Beta-cryptoxanthin||Butternut squash, carrots, corn, kumquats, papaya, peaches, tangerines, persimmons, oranges, red peppers, pumpkins.||May decrease risk of some cancers, degenerative diseases, and osteoporosis.|
|Alpha-carotene||Pumpkins, carrots, butternut squash, tangerines, tomatoes, collard greens, Napa cabbage, sweet potato, avocado,||May decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.|
|Beta-carotene||Broccoli, carrots, pumpkins, squash, sweet potato, winter squash (butternut), leafy greens (romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard greens, collards, beet greens swiss chard), peapods, red and yellow bell peppers, apricots, bananas, cantaloupe, paprika, cayenne, chili, parsley, cilantro, marjoram, sage, coriander.||Improved cognitive, skin and eye health, and is protective against some cancers (in whole food).|
|Lycopene||Tomato and tomato products, guava, watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, red bell pepper, persimmon, asparagus, red cabbage, mango.||May slow the growth of prostate, breast and other cancers; may support heart and eye health.|
Eat these foods with some fat for maximum absorption. And feel free to cook your tomatoes; the lycopene is not destroyed.
Get a complete list of antioxidants in my article here.
Tips for getting more fruits and vegetables into your diet
The most recent US Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. That’s 8 1/2 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Here are some ways to max up your nutrition with minimal effort:
- Remember that a serving isn’t very big. One serving is one small piece of fruit like an apple, banana or orange. It is also 1/2 cup chopped fruit or veggie, or 1 cup of leafy greens. You can do this!
- Choose “super foods” with multiple benefits. For example, blueberries and strawberries contain multiple phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
- As soon as you bring fresh produce home from the store, wash and cut it (if necessary). Put the prepped fruit and veggies in see-through glass containers in your fridge. They will look pretty and be easy to grab every time you open the fridge door.
- Every day, make one meal, or part of one meal, a salad. In that salad, include as many different types of veggies or fruits as you can, so you’re getting multiple servings in one dish.
- Remember the number 2: have 2 servings at each meal, and then you will only need 1 1/2 more serving at snack time to get your daily allotment. Don’t save up all your servings for dinner.
Tips for getting YELLOW/ORANGE fruits and vegetables into your diet
- Try a baked sweet potato instead of a white baked potato. You can cook and season it the same way, and it is just as delicious. Sliced sweet potato tossed in olive oil and chili pepper makes delicious oven fries quickly and easily.
- Grate some washed raw carrot into your salad. It adds beautiful color and a pleasant crunchy texture. Grated carrot is also terrific sprinkled in sandwiches.
- Add diced red or yellow bell pepper to pizzas, salads, or eggs. Again you will get great color, texture and flavor.
- Have orange or clementine segments with your breakfast or as an afternoon snack.
- OJ can be too sweet on its own, but if you cut it with some seltzer, you’ll have a “Shirley Temple” mimosa that’s brimming with antioxidants.
Hope this answers your questions about yellow/orange phytonutrients!
Read here to learn about the blue/purple phytonutrients.
Read here to learn about the red phytonutrients.
Read here to learn about when it’s OK—or not—to eat the skin on fresh produce.
- Abdel-Aal, e., Akhtar, H., Zaheer, K., & Ali, R. (2013). Dietary sources of lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids and their role in eye health. Nutrients, 5(4), 1169–1185. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu5041169
- Koushan, K., Rusovici, R., Li, W., Ferguson, L. R., & Chalam, K. V. (2013). The role of lutein in eye-related disease. Nutrients, 5(5), 1823–1839. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu5051823.
- Eisenhauer, B., Natoli, S., Liew, G., & Flood, V. M. (2017). Lutein and Zeaxanthin-Food Sources, Bioavailability and Dietary Variety in Age-Related Macular Degeneration Protection. Nutrients, 9(2), 120. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9020120.
- Roberts, J. E., & Dennison, J. (2015). The Photobiology of Lutein and Zeaxanthin in the Eye. Journal of ophthalmology, 2015, 687173. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/687173.
- Bernstein, P. S., Li, B., Vachali, P. P., Gorusupudi, A., Shyam, R., Henriksen, B. S., & Nolan, J. M. (2016). Lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin: The basic and clinical science underlying carotenoid-based nutritional interventions against ocular disease. Progress in retinal and eye research, 50, 34–66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.preteyeres.2015.10.003.
- Roberts, R. L., Green, J., & Lewis, B. (2009). Lutein and zeaxanthin in eye and skin health. Clinics in dermatology, 27(2), 195–201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clindermatol.2008.01.011.
- Astner, S., Wu, A., Chen, J., Philips, N., Rius-Diaz, F., Parrado, C., Mihm, M. C., Goukassian, D. A., Pathak, M. A., & González, S. (2007). Dietary lutein/zeaxanthin partially reduces photoaging and photocarcinogenesis in chronically UVB-irradiated Skh-1 hairless mice. Skin pharmacology and physiology, 20(6), 283–291. https://doi.org/10.1159/000107576.
- Bernstein, P. S., Zhao, D. Y., Wintch, S. W., Ermakov, I. V., McClane, R. W., & Gellermann, W. (2002). Resonance Raman measurement of macular carotenoids in normal subjects and in age-related macular degeneration patients. Ophthalmology, 109(10), 1780–1787. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0161-6420(02)01173-9.
- Bernstein, P. S., Delori, F. C., Richer, S., van Kuijk, F. J., & Wenzel, A. J. (2010). The value of measurement of macular carotenoid pigment optical densities and distributions in age-related macular degeneration and other retinal disorders. Vision research, 50(7), 716–728. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2009.10.014.
- Seddon, J. M., Ajani, U. A., Sperduto, R. D., Hiller, R., Blair, N., Burton, T. C., Farber, M. D., Gragoudas, E. S., Haller, J., & Miller, D. T. (1994). Dietary carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and advanced age-related macular degeneration. Eye Disease Case-Control Study Group. JAMA, 272(18), 1413–1420. PMID: 7933422.
- Burri B. J. (2015). Beta-cryptoxanthin as a source of vitamin A. Journal of the science of food and agriculture, 95(9), 1786–1794. https://doi.org/10.1002/jsfa.6942.
- Burri, B. J., La Frano, M. R., & Zhu, C. (2016). Absorption, metabolism, and functions of β-cryptoxanthin. Nutrition reviews, 74(2), 69–82. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuv064.
- Li C, Ford ES, Zhao G, Balluz LS, Giles WH, Liu S. Serum α-Carotene Concentrations and Risk of Death Among US Adults: The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Follow-up Study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(6):507–515. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2010.440.
- Rutjes AWS, Denton DA, Di Nisio M, Chong LY, Abraham RP, Al‐Assaf AS, Anderson JL, Malik MA, Vernooij RWM, Martínez G, Tabet N, McCleery J. Vitamin and mineral supplementation for maintaining cognitive function in cognitively healthy people in mid and late life. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 12. Art. No.: CD011906. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD011906.pub2. Accessed 06 February 2021.
- Wilhelm Stahl, Helmut Sies, β-Carotene and other carotenoids in protection from sunlight, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 96, Issue 5, November 2012, Pages 1179S–1184S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.034819.
- Wu, J., Cho, E., Willett, W. C., Sastry, S. M., & Schaumberg, D. A. (2015). Intakes of Lutein, Zeaxanthin, and Other Carotenoids and Age-Related Macular Degeneration During 2 Decades of Prospective Follow-up. JAMA ophthalmology, 133(12), 1415–1424. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2015.3590.
- Griffiths, K., Aggarwal, B. B., Singh, R. B., Buttar, H. S., Wilson, D., & De Meester, F. (2016). Food Antioxidants and Their Anti-Inflammatory Properties: A Potential Role in Cardiovascular Diseases and Cancer Prevention. Diseases (Basel, Switzerland), 4(3), 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/diseases4030028.
- Kapinova, A., Kubatka, P., Golubnitschaja, O., Kello, M., Zubor, P., Solar, P., & Pec, M. (2018). Dietary phytochemicals in breast cancer research: anticancer effects and potential utility for effective chemoprevention. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 23(1), 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12199-018-0724-1.
- Voutilainen, S., Nurmi, T., Mursu, J., & Rissanen, T. H. (2006). Carotenoids and cardiovascular health. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 83(6), 1265–1271. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/83.6.1265.
- Chen, J., Song, Y., & Zhang, L. (2013). Lycopene/tomato consumption and the risk of prostate cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology, 59(3), 213–223. https://doi.org/10.3177/jnsv.59.213.
- US Dietary Guidelines
Vicki Spellman is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA) and Senior VP at a large healthcare communications firm.
link to Book Review: “Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor
Book Review: “Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor
“Breathe” is one of my favorite health books of the year. It has more genuinely new ideas in it for healthful living than any book I’ve read in a long time. For example: Breathing in different…CONTINUE READINGlink to What are the Red Phytonutrients?
What are the Red Phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients are the 100,000+ chemicals in plants that help them ward off disease, pests, radiation from the sun, and other hazards. Many phytonutrients are antioxidants, and in people, have…CONTINUE READING
I’m Vicki, a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA), and am passionate about nutrition and wellness. I love sharing what I learn and promise to provide only evidence-based information. I hope this site will be your go-to guide for making it easy to live a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle!