The name "carotene" was first coined in the early 19th Century by the scientist Wachenroder after he crystallized this compound from carrot roots. Beta-carotene is a member of the carotenoids, which are highly pigmented (red, orange, yellow), fat-soluble compounds naturally present in many fruits, grains, oil and vegetables (green plants, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, apricots, and green peppers). Alpha, beta, and gamma carotene are considered provitamins because they can be converted to active vitamin A.
The carotenes possess antioxidant properties. Vitamin A serves several biological functions including involvement in the synthesis of certain glycoproteins. Vitamin A deficiency leads to abnormal bone development, disorders of the reproductive system, xerophthalmia (a drying condition of the cornea of the eye), and ultimately death.
Commercially available beta-carotene is produced synthetically or from palm oil, algae, or fungi. Beta-carotene is converted to retinol, which is essential for vision and is subsequently converted to retinoic acid, which is used for processes involving growth and cell differentiation.