Lutein is a carotenoid, one of a group of more than 600 naturally-occurring pigments that lend many fruits and vegetables their color. Specifically, it a is a xanthophyll, one of the yellow-to-orange carotenoid pigments found in carrots, corn and squash. In contrast to some other carotenoids. Named after "luteus," the Latin word for yellow, lutein is manufactured exclusively by plants. In addition to yellow fruits and vegetables, lutein is also found in green, leafy vegetables like kale and spinach. Its function is to allow plants to absorb light to facilitate photosynthesis, and to protect chlorophyll from phototoxicity.
In animals, lutein is absorbed from the consumption of plants. In fact, it’s what gives poultry egg yolks golden color. Being one of only two dozen or so carotenoids that are taken up by optic cells, lutein resides in human macula and retina, where it exerts antioxidant effects to protect the eyes from vision loss. Dubbed as “the eye vitamin,” lutein is commonly recommended to prevent and treat age-related eye disorders, such as cataracts and macular degeneration. According to Harvard University researchers, daily intake of 6 mg of lutein lowers the risk for macular degeneration by 43%. (1)
Lutein also accumulates in the brain. Studies have shown that supplementation with lutein, together with the fellow xanthophyll carotenoid, zeaxanthin, improves cognitive function in older adults by preventing oxidative damage and inflammation. (2)
While lutein status has been shown to be associated with cognitive function in the geriatric population, it is possible that lutein is needed to help the brain grow and develop starting in infancy. Research shows that lutein is crucial for milestone development in babies, learning in older children and memory in adults. According to Dr. Elizabeth Johnson of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, who presented at the Nutrition 2018 conference in Boston, adequate lutein intake in childhood, most notably during the first year of life, may play a role in preventing age-related dementia down the road. (3)
Good Sources of Lutein
American Macular Degeneration Foundation: Lutein May Decrease Your Risk of Macular Degeneration
Hammond B.R. Jr, Miller S.L., Bello M.O. "Effects of Lutein/Zeaxanthin Supplementation on the Cognitive Function of Community Dwelling Older Adults: A Randomized, Double-Masked, Placebo-Controlled Trial." Front Aging Neurosci. 2017; 9: 254.