Balance Beta-carotene for Your Bird

by Leslie Moran

Beta-carotene, an important antioxidant, belongs to a class of phytochemicals called carotenoids. They are fat soluble pigments found in yellow, red, green and orange vegetables and fruits. This family of antioxidants also includes alpha-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin.

There are more than 500 different carotenoids in nature. Fifty of these, including beta-carotene, can be converted to vitamin A in a healthy liver.  Because of this, beta-carotene is considered a provitamin.  The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A as needed, with any left over beta-carotene then acting as an antioxidant.

Antioxidants, also called free-radical scavengers, are the only way the body can successfully manage free-radicals. Numerous diseases, the effects of pollution, degenerative conditions and even the aging process itself has been attributed to free-radical damage. A free radical is a highly reactive molecule that can bind to and destroy other molecules. Also known as oxidative damage, free radical damage can irreversibly impair body cells and physiological processes.

In its role against free radicals, beta-carotene has been identified as being able to break down the chain reactions of these highly charged free radical molecules. When this occurs, this potent antioxidant prevents cholesterol oxidization and protects DNA from the harmful effects of oxidization. Beta-carotene has been seen to disable reactive oxygen species molecules caused from exposure to sunlight and air pollution, this helps prevent damage to eyes, lungs, and skin.

For these reasons, beta-carotene has become known for promoting eye health, good vision, helps postpone the effects of aging, helps prevent cancer, heart disease, heart attack, strokes and arteriosclerosis.

Any thorough discussion of this nutrient must clarify the relationship between beta-carotene and vitamin A.  Many articles and nutrition data sources use the term beta-carotene and vitamin A interchangeably. This gives the impression that they are the same nutrient, when in reality they are not.

As you learned above, beta-carotene is an antioxidant and is the precursor to vitamin A.  The nutrient vitamin A is also called rentinol. It is a fat soluble vitamin that is found in animal foods: whole eggs, liver, fatty fish, and cod liver oil.

When discussing beta-carotene and rentinol vitamin A you may see the letters: RE (rentinol equivalent). Over the past ten years research has been done showing that the body’s ability to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A rentinol will vary between individuals.  And when beta-carotene comes from common food sources only one twelfth of it can be converted to vitamin A. However, if the  beta-carotene has been dissolved in oil half of it can be converted.

Rentinol vitamin A is one of the few nutrients where minimum daily requirements for birds have been set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).  People with diabetes and hypothyroidism (under active thyroid gland) cannot convert beta-carotene into vitamin A. Although avian veterinarians have not documented similar findings in parrots, if your bird is ever diagnosed with either of these conditions check to ensure that they have an adequate intake of vitamin A rentinol in their diet.  Although vitamin A has been identified as an essential avian nutrient, because it is a fat soluble vitamin, hypervitaminosis A (an overdose of vitamin A) can and has occurred in parrots.

For our birds to be healthy they must consume hundreds of nutrients everyday.  Nutritional research from the University of Maryland Medical center has shown that it’s best to get the full benefits of beta-carotene from foods sources, not nutritional supplements.  Their research shows that getting more antioxidants through diet helps boost the immune system, protects against free radical damage, and may lower the risk of two types of chronic illness- heart disease and cancer.

Foods rich in beta-carotene include apricots, beet greens, broccoli, cantaloupe, watermelon, carrots, collards, dandelion and mustard greens, kale, papayas, peaches, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, turnip greens, yellow squash and an assortment of select sprouts.

Leslie Moran uses food as medicine for creating health and wellness in parrots. Moran’s book, The Complete Guide to Successful Sprouting for Parrots, provides insight into the essential elements of her avian nutritional plan. She writes, teaches and provides consultations from her facility in Northern Nevada.