Nutritional Spotlight - Lutein
Red, yellow, orange, green… don’t you just marvel at the beautiful palette of colours as you walk down the fruit and vegetable aisle in a supermarket? These colour pigments are provided by compounds called phytochemicals, which are substances produced naturally by plants. One key group of phytochemicals is the carotenoids, which have powerful antioxidant properties.
You might be familiar with some members of the carotenoid family, such as beta-carotene and lycopene - lutein is actually a carotenoid too. Scientists have found that lutein may help protect the eyes, and new research suggests that it could also have a role in brain health. These findings might hold particular importance for babies, as the first year of life is a critical time for brain and eye development.
Promoting healthy vision
Do you know how the eyes “see”? When light enters the eye lens, it is projected onto the back of the eye. Here, a specialised sensory organ known as the retina will convert the light into an electrical signal, which is then sent through the optic nerve to the brain for further processing.
There is a high concentration of lutein in the retina, and it appears to support eye health in two key ways. Lutein absorbs light of the blue wavelength - blue light is high in energy and could harm the retina. Lutein is also able to neutralise free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules that can similarly cause damage to the retina.
Visual development progresses quickly during the first 6 months of life. Babies may benefit from the protective effects of lutein, especially since the infant retina is more vulnerable to oxidative damage due to the relative clarity of their eye lens.
Potential role in brain development
At around one year of age, a baby’s brain would have tripled in size from birth. Researchers have recently discovered that lutein is the major carotenoid present in the infant brain. It was found to be predominant in regions which are involved in regulating cognition, forming memory and processing sounds and visual information.
As lutein is a potent antioxidant, it may serve to protect DHA, which is a key building block of the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids like DHA are prone to damage caused by free radicals. Further studies will lead to better understanding of the impact of lutein in the developing infant brain.
Getting lutein from the diet
The body cannot produce lutein, so it has to be obtained from the food we eat. Green leafy vegetables such as kai lan, kangkung, spinach and sweet potato leaves are rich sources of lutein. Lutein can also be found in egg yolks.
Pregnant women are able to transfer lutein to their fetus through the placenta. After birth, infants can obtain lutein from breast milk and subsequently from solid foods when complementary feeding is introduced.
Could lutein be the magic bullet?
For optimal brain and eye development, adequate intake of calories and different nutrients such as DHA, AA, taurine and choline is necessary. Nutritional components often work together to confer benefits; no single type is able to “do it all”.
Breast milk offers the best mix of nutrients, and exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 6 months of life. As the child begins to consume solid foods, it is important to ensure that a wide variety of food is provided. Milk should still be included to complement the child’s diet, and parents may choose to use a follow-on or growing-up formula with added lutein.
Lim Meng Thiam
Dietician / Nutrition Education Manager
Abbott Nutrition International