a1 Northern Ireland Centre for Diet and Health, University of Ulster, Coleraine BT52 1SA, UK
There are two major dietary sources of vitamin A: easily absorbed retinyl palmitate in foods of animal origin, and poorly bioavailable carotenoids from plant foods. Plasma retinol is tightly controlled, probably by regulation of retinol-binding protein (RBP) formation in the liver, and only hormonal factors (e.g. oral contraceptives) and infection will alter the homeostasis. Delivery of retinol to the tissues is facilitated by the RBP-retinol complex; however, there is evidence that this mechanism can be bypassed when very high doses of vitamin A are given. Some retinyl ester may be released to tissues from chylomicrons when the latter bind to tissue lipoprotein receptors during their passage from the gut to the liver following a meal. High-dose vitamin A therapy is a means of rapidly improving vitamin A status in persons with sub-optimal vitamin A nutrition but there are dangers of toxic symptoms (e.g. teratogenicity) from excess vitamin A usage. Evidence is presented to suggest that the plasma retinol : RBP may be a guide to optimal vitamin A status, since values less than one frequently occur in less-developed countries and during infection. In contrast to plasma retinol, plasma carotenoids reflect the dietary intake of plant foods. However, absorption is limited by poor bioavailability and a saturable uptake mechanism in competition with other phytochemicals. Recent work on bioavailability suggests that the calculation of plant food vitamin A activity should be re-examined. Illness has little influence on plasma levels except by suppressing appetite. Carotenoids are generally regarded as non-toxic yet intervention studies with β-carotene in smokers have been associated with increased lung cancer and heart disease. Some carotenoids are important as vitamin A precursors, but the physiological importance of their antioxidant properties is not known and consequently the amount needed for optimal nutrition is uncertain.