Laboratoire de biochimie B, CHU, CO34, 54035 Nancy
Carotenoids are a family of pigments with at least 600 members. They derive from lycopene after steps of cyclisation, dehydrogenation and oxidation. It is their chemical structure that determines their physiochemical properties and, in part, their biological activities. About 50 carotenoids can be found in human diet and about 20 of them have been found in plasma and tissues. There is no RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for carotenoids. Quantities of carotenoids in diet are difficult to estimate, partly because methods used for the establishment of food composition tables were not specific and sensitive enough. Also, given values do not always take into account variations due to season and region of culture. Absorption of beta-carotene in humans has been the subject of numerous studies but only very little is known about other carotenoids. In general, absorption depends on bioavailability from the food matrix and solubility in micelles. After absorption through passive diffusion, carotenoids follow the chylomicrons metabolism. They are taken up by the liver and released in the blood stream in lipoproteins (VLDL). Carotenoids with no-substituted beta-ionone cycles (alpha and beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin) have provitamin A activity. Highest activity has been found for all-trans beta-carotene. Not all steps of vitamin A biosynthesis and metabolism of other carotenoids have been clarified yet. Besides their provitamin A activity, carotenoids have numerous biological functions. They are efficient scavengers of free radicals, particularly of 1O2. In vitro they have been shown to protect LDL. However, results in vivo are inconsistent. Other functions include enhancement of gap junctions, immunomodulation and regulation of enzyme activity involved in carcinogenesis.