Evidence-Based Nutrient Recommendations

Vitamin A

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Contents

Vitamin A in Plant Foods

Pre-formed vitamin A exists only in animal products. However, there are about 50 carotenoids that the body can convert into vitamin A, with the most common being beta-carotene. The vitamin A content of foods is measured in retinol activity equivalents (RAE). You may also see carotenoids measured in international units, or IU. One IU beta-carotene from foods is equivalent to 0.05 micrograms RAE and 1 IU beta-carotene from dietary supplements is equivalent to 0.15 micrograms RAE.

The table below lists the RAE of common plant foods. Vegans should make a point of eating two or more foods high—over 400 RAE—in vitamin A each day.

Retinol Activity Equivalents (RAE)
Food Size RAE
Carrot juice 1 C 2,256
Sweet potato 1/2 C baked 961
Pumpkin 1/2 C canned 953
Carrot 1/2 C boiled slices 665
Butternut squash 1/2 C baked, cubes 572
Carrot 1 medium 509
Spinach 1/2 C cooked 472
Cantaloupe 1/2 medium 467
Broccoli 1 C boiled 120
Apricot 1/2 C dried 117
Mango 1 C pieces 89
Kale 1/2 C cooked 86
Apricot 1 raw 34

Dietary Reference Intake for Vitamin A

Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A
Age US DRI
(RAE)
Upper Limit
(RAE)
0–6 mos 400 600
7–12 mos 500 600
1–3 300 600
4–8 400 900
9–13 600 1,700
14–18 male 900 2,800
14-18 female 700 2,800
≥ 19 male 900 3,000
> 19 female 700 3,000
Pregnancy
≤ 18 750 2,800
19–50 770 3,000
Breastfeeding
≤ 18 1,200 2,800
19–50 1,300 3,000

The upper limit for vitamin A applies only to the retinol form (found in animal products, fortified foods, and supplements), but does not apply to carotenoids.

Vitamin A – Deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency symptoms begin with night blindness and can progress to more severe eye problems such as corneal ulcers, scarring, and blindness (1).

Vitamin A deficiency also reduces the ability to ward off infections.

Vitamin A is important for growth and development in infants and children, and for red blood cell formation.

Vitamin A – Absorption

Eating vegetables high in carotenoids with some fat has been shown to increase both the absorption and synthesis of vitamin A (2).

Many factors affect how well dietary carotenoids are absorbed and converted to vitamin A, including body composition, age, smoking, medications, alcohol consumption, food processing, and genetic variation (3, 4). As many as 50% of individuals in some populations may have a low response to beta-carotene and other carotenoids, meaning they either don’t absorb as much as others do or they don’t convert as much to vitamin A (6).

Researchers are looking into how genetic variability impacts the conversion of carotenoids into vitamin A and whether recommendations should vary according to people’s genetic type (5). But at this point, it’s not possible outside of a research setting to determine if someone has a lower response to dietary carotenoids. Even so-called “low-responders” apparently can absorb some dietary carotenoids and convert some to vitamin A (7).

We don’t know the amount of provitamin A carotenoids that is optimal for a low responder who relies exclusively on carotenoids. But choosing a generous amount of foods containing beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids may lead to greater absorption and more conversion in low-responders (8). Until more is known, our best advice is to meet the intake recommendations for provitamin A carotenoids by eating generous amounts of leafy green vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes, and bright orange winter squashes.

If you have concerns about vitamin A, taking a vegan supplement providing a small amount of preformed vitamin A in the form of retinol is another option. The recommendation for a small amount is because some observational studies have found an increased risk for bone fracture with intakes of preformed vitamin A above 1,500 mcg RAE, only slightly more than the RDA (9, 10). In any case, preformed vitamin A intakes should not exceed 3,000 mcg RAE (10,000 IU) daily (11).

References

Last updated January 2020

1. Vitamin A. Linus Pauling Institute. Accessed 1/25/2013.

2. Kopec RE, Cooperstone JL, Schweiggert RM, Young GS, Harrison EH, Francis DM, Clinton SK, Schwartz SJ. Avocado Consumption Enhances Human Postprandial Provitamin A Absorption and Conversion from a Novel High-β-Carotene Tomato Sauce and from Carrots. J Nutr. 2014 Aug;144(8):1158-66.

3. Moran NE, Mohn ES, Hason N, Erdman JW Jr, Johnson EJ. Intrinsic and extrinsic factors impacting absorption, metabolism, and health effects of dietary carotenoids. Adv Nutr. 2018 Jul 1;9(4):465-492.

4. Carotenoids. Linus Pauling Institute. Accessed 1/9/2020.

5. Borel P, Desmarchelier C. Genetic variations associated with vitamin A status and vitamin A bioavailability. Nutrients. 2017 Mar 8;9(3).

6. Lietz G, Oxley A, Leung W, Hesketh J. Single nucleotide polymorphisms upstream from the β-carotene 15,15′-monoxygenase gene influence provitamin A conversion efficiency in female volunteers. J Nutr. 2012 Jan;142(1):161S-5S.

7. Borel P. Genetic variations involved in interindividual variability in carotenoid status. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2012 Feb;56(2):228-40.

8. Borel P, Desmarchelier C, Nowicki M, Bott R. A combination of single-nucleotide polymorphisms is associated with interindividual variability in dietary β-carotene bioavailability in healthy men. J Nutr. 2015 Aug;145(8):1740-7.

9. Feskanich D, Singh V, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Vitamin A intake and hip fractures among postmenopausal women. JAMA. 2002;287(1):47-54.

10. Wu AM, Huang CQ, Lin ZK, et al. The relationship between vitamin A and risk of fracture: meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Bone Miner Res. 2014;29(9):2032-2039.

11. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001

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