Vitamin A is a group of nutritionally unsaturated hydrocarbons, which include retinol, retinal, retinoic acid and several provitamin A carotenoids among which beta-carotene is the most important. Vitamin A has multiple functions, it is important for growth and development, for the maintenance of the immune system and good vision. Vitamin A is needed by the retina of the eye in the form of retinal, which combines with protein opsin to form rhodopsin the light-absorbing molecule, that is necessary for both low-light (scotopic vision) and color vision. Vitamin A also functions in a very different role as an irreversibly oxidized form of retinol known as retinoic acid, which is an important hormone-like growth factor for epithelial and other cells.
In foods of animal origin, the major form of vitamin A is an ester, primarily retinyl palmitate, which is converted to retinol (chemically an alcohol) in the small intestine. The retinol form functions as a storage form of the vitamin, and can be converted to and from its visually active aldehyde form, retinal. The associated acid (retinoic acid), a metabolite that can be irreversibly synthesized from vitamin A, has only partial vitamin A activity, and does not function in the retina for the visual cycle. Retinoic acid is used for growth and cellular differentiation .
All forms of vitamin A have a beta-ionone ring to which an isoprenoid chain is attached, called a retinyl group. Both structural features are essential for vitamin activity. The orange pigment of carrots – beta-carotene – can be represented as two connected retinyl groups, which are used in the body to contribute to vitamin A levels. Alpha-carotene and gamma-carotene also have a single retinyl group, which give them some vitamin activity. None of the other carotenes have vitamin activity. The carotenoid beta-cryptoxanthin possesses an ionone group and has vitamin activity in humans.
Vitamin A can be found in two principal forms in foods:
- Retinol, the form of vitamin A absorbed when eating animal food sources, is a yellow, fat-soluble substance. Since the pure alcohol form is unstable, the vitamin is found in tissues in a form of retinyl ester. It is also commercially produced and administered as esters such as retinyl acetate or palmitate.
- The carotenes alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, gamma-carotene; and the xanthophyll beta-cryptoxanthin (all of which contain beta-ionone rings), but no other carotenoids, function as provitamin A in herbivores and omnivore animals, which possess the enzyme (15-15'-dioxygenase) which cleaves beta-carotene in the intestinal mucosa and converts it retinol . In general, carnivores are poor converters of ionine-containing carotenoids, and pure carnivores such as cats and ferrets lack 15-15'-dioxygenase and cannot convert any carotenoids to retinal (resulting in none of the carotenoids being forms of vitamin A for these species).
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