Eat your Carotenoids

Eat your Carotenoids

Barbara Cox - top nutritionist at Nutrichef, the award winning healthy meal delivery company - is passionate about food and the benefits people get from eating a healthy, well balanced diet. During Barbara’s nine-year stay in Japan, she was inspired by the fact that the Japanese have lower rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity than people in the UK - primarily because they have a healthy diet that includes a wide range of vegetables and regular consumption of fish. After returning to England, Barbara set up her own company, Nutrichef, which delivers a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner to customers’ homes throughout the UK.

Every Sunday my mum made a roast dinner with generous portions of carrots, parsnips and sweet potato mash, topped with crushed chestnuts and zucchini fritters (traditional in Canada, where I grew up). For dessert we had Mum’s amazing Pumpkin and Maple Pie. Unknowingly, every Sunday we were topping up on our carotenoids a family of plant compounds that are essential to human health and which are best known for the red, orange and yellow colouration they give to many fruits and vegetables.

Let’s take a closer look at why carotenoids are so important, which foods contain them, and what  recipes will allow you to serve up delicious, carotenoid-friendly meals.

What are Carotenoids?
Carotenoids are one of the many different phytonutrients - naturally occurring chemicals produced by plants. They are converted in the body into water-soluble Vitamin A, itself a powerful disease-fighting antioxidant, with research to support its actions against cancer.

There are over 600 different carotenoids, each with a unique chemical composition. The best known of the carotenoids are:

Alpha-Carotene - found in carrots, coriander and green beans
Beta-Carotene - found in apricots, cantaloupe melon and broccoli
Beta-Cryptoxanthin - found in persimmon (Sharon fruit), papaya and tangerines
Capsaicin - found in chilli, sweet red bell and jalapeno peppers
Lycopene - found in tomatoes, guava and watermelon
Lutein - found in turnip, kale and spinach
Zeaxanthin - a strong yellow pigment found in fruits and vegetables

Anti-Cancer research on Carotenoids?
I always advise people to eat a wide variety of different healthy ingredients in order to provide the wide variety of different nutrients we need for optimum health. This applies to carotenoids as well, as some are believed to be more potent than others. Many carotenoids have been found to inhibit cancer development, but this inhibition is reversible, meaning that stopping a diet rich in carotenoids may cause the cancer to grow again.

There’s a great deal of research into the effects of carotenoids. One way that carotenoids inhibit cancer growth is related to their ability to improve intercellular ’communication’ by increasing the production of a protein (connexion 43, C43) which sits between cells. Cancer cells lack the C43 protein, which means they also lack a vital growth control system. A diet rich in carotenoids can help return the situation to normal, especially when combined with selenium a constituent mineral of C43 found in brown rice, fish and Brazil nuts.

Two studies, one from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York and the other from Harvard in 2009 showed that eating colourful red, yellow and orange vegetables not only reduced the risk of developing breast cancer,  but helped prevent it returning. In both cases the groups eating the carotenoids almost halved their risk. (International Journal of Cancer, 2009 Jun 15; 124(12):2929-37. Cancer Epidemiology; Biomarkers and Prevention. 2009 Feb; 18(2):486-94).

Shhwartz and Shklar at Harvard University studied the ability of carotenoids to inhibit tumour growth in breast, lung, oral and skin tissue. They found a positive response to treatment within 1 to 5 hours.

Stahelin and colleagues from the University of Basel researched the role of a number of antioxidants, including carotene in 3000 men over a period of 15 years. They found that there was an increase in cancers of the stomach and bronchus in subjects with low plasma levels of carotene.

Another example from research concerns vitamin A, mainly created in the body from carotenoids consumed. Known to drive many cancers from breast, to colon, to prostate and even some brain tumours, oestrogen causes its damage by binding to cellular receptor sites. Scientists at the University of Chicago have shown that a metabolite of vitamin A (retenoic acid) can compete with and block this damaging action. Whereas oestrogen causes random and rapid cell growth to occur, the vitamin A was found to normalise proceedings.

My Top Carotenoid Foods and Recipes
These top 5 are packed with carotenoids and easy to incorporate into everyone’s busy lifestyles.

I adore sweet potatoes. They’re rich in beta carotene, potassium and vitamin C, and are so versatile and easy to incorporate into your diet. I add them to soups and casseroles, or mash them then dust with nutmeg. But my absolute favourite is a jacket sweet potato with a healthy topping such as free range coronation chicken with chopped apricots.

Baked Jacket Sweet Potato

4 sweet potatoes, baked in jackets until centres soft
1 red onion, chopped finely
1 head of broccoli, broken into small florettes and steamed
Sprinkle of Himalayan crystal salt and cracked pepper and paprika
1 teaspoon of avocado oil
Fry the onion until golden. Scoop the sweet potato centres into a mixing bowl. Add the steamed broccoli, fried onion and seasoning. Mix together and then spoon back into jacket shells. Drizzle avocado oil and re-heat in the oven for 10 minutes. Serve with a lemon wedge and sliced avocado.
One step further
Add some red: such as a red bell pepper garnish
Add some green:  such as leeks to the onion when frying
Add some protein: such as tuna, chicken, lamb, marinated tofu, chick peas or sprouted mung beans

Pumpkin is a great source of beta carotene and vitamin E. 
It’s easily digested and rarely causes allergies, making it a perfect first food for a baby.
The seeds (rich in iron, zinc and magnesium) can also be used if you wash them, coat with seasoning, then roast them in the oven.
This warming pumpkin soup is perfect in the winter months. In summer you can serve it cold in a glass, topped with a coconut milk swirl.

Pumpkin and Paprika Spiced Soup

1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 red onion
750g fresh pumpkin, cut into chunks
1 yellow pepper
1 garlic clove
1 orange, zest and juice
300 ml non-dairy milk such as rice milk, soya or quinoa, or even coconut milk for a richer flavour.
Fry the onion and garlic until golden in coconut oil, then add the pumpkin chunks, chopped yellow pepper, juice and zest of an orange. Pour in 300 ml of non-dairy milk (or stock if preferred). Season to taste with Himalayan crystal salt, cracked pepper and paprika.
One step further
Add some yellow: try a yellow pepper
Add some green: try braised cabbage
Add some protein:  1 cup red lentils

Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene and fibre. Research suggests that due to the tough cell walls of a carrot, 25% more beta carotene can be absorbed when cooked. Carrots are inexpensive and easy to add to most dishes like soups, casseroles and salads. My Minestrone Soup (recipe below) includes tomatoes, which are packed with lycopene - a very important anti-cancer carotenoid. As in the case of carotene from carrots, the concentration of lycopene increases when tomatoes are cooked.

Minestrone Soup

3 Carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
6 chopped tomatoes
1 small sweet potato, diced into chunks, (skin is optional)
1 red onion
swede, diced into chunks
mouli, diced into chunks
Olive oil
100 g cooked non-wheat pasta (rice pasta)
2 yeast-free stock cubes dissolved in 500 ml water
2 strands of saffron
Cracked pepper
Fry the onion in olive oil until golden. Add the tomatoes then stock and water. Add all other diced vegetables and saffron. Bring to a boil. Add the cooked pasta and pepper. Heat thoroughly and then serve.
One step further
Add some red:  eg a red pepper
Add some green: eg some spinach
Add some protein: eg turkey, chicken, butter beans or diced tofu

Fresh and dried apricots are a rich source of beta carotene, iron and fibre.
I adore fresh, ripe apricots
and I always take dried apricots for plane journeys as they’re fantastically chewy for take-off and landings (better than gum!)
Try this really simple salsa that can be mixed together quickly for a colourful compliment to any meal.

Apricot Salsa

2 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
1 red onion, diced small
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
Coriander (to taste)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 fresh apricots (chopped with skin)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Fresh red chilli (seeds removed, small diced)
Mix all ingredients and enjoy. This salsa is great with fish, meat, grilled tofu or with crackers and crudits of vegetables.
One step further
Add some red: try fresh or dried cranberries
Add some green: try celery
Add some protein: try fresh soya beans, edamame

Mangoes are a rich source of beta carotene and Vitamin C.
These juicy, messy, silky, fleshy fruits are best eaten over the sink, chopped and made into smoothies, or added to salads and chutneys.
Try this simple smoothie recipe.
It can be served in a tall glass or frozen into ice-lolly moulds for a(n)ice treat!

Mango Smoothie

1 tablespoon flax seed oil
1 orange- juice and zest
1 mango
1 banana
200ml coconut water
Blend all ingredients together and serve chilled
One step further
Add some red: try cherries
Add some green: try kiwi
Add some protein: try a protein powder (dairy free), or powered chlorella

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