Your body needs vitamin A for physiological processes, normal immune and reproductive function, and the health of the retina in your eye. Retinol, a form of this fat-soluble vitamin, can be found in a variety of animal-based foods.1 But which foods are richest in retinol and is there a way for vegans to bump up the retinol in their bodies too? Here are some answers.
Retinol: Available As Preformed Vitamin A From Animal Sources
When it comes to vitamin A in your diet, things can get a little confusing because of the many forms the nutrient takes in different foods. Fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes or carrots are rich in beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A (provitamin A carotenoids) which is also responsible for their characteristic color. On the other hand, animal sources of vitamin A contain it as preformed vitamin A – one form of which is retinol. The vegan sources of the nutrient need to be converted to physiologically available retinol before it can be used by the body. To explain exactly how this matters, here’s a look at the amount of each form of vitamin A you’d need to get the equivalent of 1 mcg of physiologically available retinol:2
- 1 mcg of retinol (animal sources)
- 12 mcg of beta-carotene (fruit and vegetable sources)
- 24 mcg of alpha-carotene (fruit and vegetable sources)
- 24 mcg of beta-cryptoxanthin (fruit and vegetable sources)
As you can see, to get retinol most efficiently from your diet, animal sources work well, which is why this list of foods first looks at animal sources. Vegans will need to consume vitamin A in its other forms and rely on the body to convert it to retinol. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A is pegged at 900 mcg RAE per day for all adult males, while for women, that number is 700 mcg RAE. If you are pregnant, the RDA is higher, at 770 mcg RAE, and if you’re nursing your baby, your RDA is 1300 mcg RAE.3 The daily value, a measure used to track nutrient richness of foods, for vitamin A is set at 900 mcg RAE for adults and will include all the forms of vitamin A you get in through food.4
Since retinol/vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is stored in your body and can cause problems of toxicity if consumed in excess. So it is important to balance your intake and combine it with some plant sources since beta-carotene intake in large amounts through the diet isn’t as harmful.5 That said, here are the top sources of retinol you can count on.
Organ meats like liver certainly aren’t for everyone, but if it’s something you enjoy, liver can be a sure-shot way to get your retinol. You can enjoy it braised or pan-fried, depending on your palate. Liver works well with spices, so experiment with Venezuelan, Moroccan, or Indian recipe for something different. They are all variations on the basic liver and onion recipe, so you shouldn’t find it too hard. Just be warned that because the amount of vitamin A it contains is so high, it is easy to have too much and find yourself grappling with a problem of excessive intake. So don’t make liver your only source of retinol.
If you’re up for something special, buy foie gras that’s made ethically without any force-feeding of the geese. An ounce of foie gras has around 284 mcg of retinol.6 Regular liver pate has around 281 mcg per ounce.7
- Beef liver, braised, 3 oz: 8014 mcg of retinol8
- Lamb liver, braised, 3 oz: 6367 mcg of retinol9
- Chicken liver, pan-fried, 3 oz: 3649 mcg of retinol10
An ounce of kidneys: 119 mcg of retinol
Another offal way to have your retinol! Kidneys contain 119 mcg per ounce or 473 mcg per 4 ounces of the raw meat and can actually be quite delicious once you master the art of cooking them.11 A good old-fashioned braised or slow-cooked recipe works a treat with this underrated ingredient. Think steak and kidney pie or kidneys braised in caramelized onions and a red wine sauce. Or toss the kidneys in some flour and pan fry them and serve with a mustard-laced onion and tomato sauce, the richness offset by a hit of Worcestershire sauce and some fresh parsley.
An ounce of boneless cooked eel: 322 mcg of retinol
If you haven’t tried eel yet, you may want to give it a go. After all, an ounce of boneless cooked eel contains 322 mcg of retinol. If you’re having it on the bone, then expect to get about 250 mcg to the ounce.12 An easy way to start is to have it just grilled off like you would any piece of seafood. It is strongly flavored so you can cook it with stronger aromatics including garlic, lemongrass, and spices that you may shy away from otherwise. It is naturally oily, but you may still enjoy a crisp-fried eel recipe too done Italian or Sicilian style. Smoked and marinated eels are also quite the delicacy in some places. If you’re squeamish about cooking it yourself or haven’t done it before, head over to the nearest seafood or Japanese restaurant – they’ve mastered the art of cooking it to perfection, so check if they have unagi on the menu. You may be surprised at just how good it tastes!
A 3 oz serving of bluefin tuna has 643 mcg of retinol.13 Sear off your tuna or grill it for a healthier alternative to a meaty beef steak. You can make a delicious meal of it with a light relish or salad of some kind. How about a tomato based Mediterranean style relish, a fennel and orange salad, or a cucumber and olive relish? If you get your hands on some really good quality fresh tuna, there’s nothing better than a tuna tartare with sesame seeds and pickled ginger, tossed in rice vinegar and soy.
Looking for other options?
- Sturgeon is another good variety to try if you’re keen on the retinol content. A 3 oz serving of the smoked fish has 238 mcg of retinol.14
- King mackerel has 214 mcg of retinol, the nutrient you’re after, in a 3 oz serving.15
- If you enjoy pickled herring, you’ll be happy to hear that just one ounce of it contains 73 mcg of retinol.16
An ounce of caviar: 72 mcg of retinol
Caviar is a less mundane way to get your retinol. Enjoy the pop of saltiness as you bite into caviar on toast, or use it to make your standard cheese souffle, eggs benedict, or devilled eggs taste more luxurious. An ounce of these delicious orbs comes with 72 mcg of retinol.17
Cheeses are another dairy source of retinol and with the variety on offer, you can use them in everything from salads to melty fondues or pasta sauces. Or just enjoy your favorite cheeses with some nuts, dried fruit, or crackers.
- Goat’s cheese (hard), 1 oz: 136 mcg18
- Cheddar cheese, 1 oz: 94 mcg19
- Ricotta cheese, ½ cup: 145 mcg20
A tablespoon of margarine: 181.6 mcg of retinol
A tablespoon of margarine, which is around 14 gm, will give you 181.6 mcg of retinol.21 This alternative to butter is readily available in supermarkets and is an easy way to get your retinol if you like to use spreads on your bread with breakfast or other meals. The only hitch is it doesn’t work as a butter substitute in baking. Also, many brands contain trans fats which aren’t good for you so you will need to be sure you’re picking smart.
A tablespoon of butter: 95 mcg of retinol
A tablespoon of butter gives you 95 mcg of retinol.22 That shouldn’t having you bingeing on butter though! Be mindful of the fat it contains and have a little with your toast. Or add it to your baking or cooking if you don’t have any other health problems or medical conditions that need you to restrict intake of fats.
9. Egg Yolk
1 raw egg yolk: 63 mcg of retinol
Eggs are another good way to get your retinol without too much fuss. Quick and easy to cook up, they are great for breakfast or even lunch and dinner. Make yourself a simple boiled or fried egg, or treat yourself to a red pepper and tomato-based shakshuka or indulgent eggs benedict if you’ve earned it! But do remember, the retinol is in the yolk, so don’t leave that out if upping your vitamin A levels is the goal. 1 raw egg yolk has about 63 mcg of retinol.23
While consumed more as a supplement than food, cod liver oil is a rich source of retinol. Just one teaspoon contains 1350 mcg of retinol.24
Vegan Options For Retinol
But what happens if you’re vegan and are trying to up your retinol or preformed vitamin A intake? While retinol is found naturally in animal sources like meat and dairy, you can still get your retinol indirectly from vegan sources. Provitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin can be converted into retinol in your body. However, this is not as efficient as having them directly from an animal source. That said, if you are trying to eat a balanced diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables or are trying to cut back meat and dairy, or are vegan or vegetarian, you could turn to these sources of beta-carotene which converts better to retinol than alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. As you’ve seen, 1 mcg of physiologically available retinol comes from just 12 mcg of beta-carotene but needs 24 mcg of alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin.25 Here are some good sources:26
- Baked sweet potato, 1 whole: 1,403 mcg RAE
- Spinach, boiled, 1 cup: 1146 mcg RAE
- Carrots, raw, 1 cup: 918 mcg RAE
- Kale, boiled, 1 cup: 886 mcg RAE
- Cantaloupe, raw, 1 cup: 270 mcg RAE
- Peppers, sweet, red, raw, 1 cup: 234 mcg RAE
Some Fortified Foods Also Contain Retinol
Fortified foods are another way to get your retinol from vegetarian sources. Always check the labeling to see just how much each brand contains as this may vary.
A cup of reduced fat milk with added vitamin A and D contains 142 mcg of the nutrient.27 Use it in smoothies, in your cooking, or just enjoy it plain or with some hot chocolate powder mixed in.
- Peanut butter, 2 tbsp: 375 mcg28
- Cereal (ready to eat, puffed corn), 1 cup: 397 mcg29
- Rich chocolate powder drink, 2 tbsp: 150 mcg30
- Instant oats, 1 pack (43 gm): 298 mcg31
As you can see from this list, there are plenty of ways to get vitamin A. When it comes to retinol though, you’re largely limited to animal sources or fortified foods. Combine these with some vegetarian sources that get you other forms of vitamin A, some of which convert to retinol, and you’ll be getting to your daily recommended levels without much trouble.
|↑1||Retinol. National Center for Biotechnology Information.|
|↑3, ↑25, ↑26||Vitamin A. Office of Dietary Supplements.|
|↑4||Labeling Daily Values.
|↑5||Vitamin A. Office of Dietary Supplements.|
|↑6||Pate de foie gras, canned (goose liver pate), smoked. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑7||Pate, liver, not specified, canned. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑8||Beef, variety meats and by-products, liver, cooked, braised.
|↑9||Lamb, variety meats and by-products, liver, cooked, braised. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑10||Chicken, liver, all classes, cooked, pan-fried. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑11||Beef, variety meats and by-products, kidneys, raw.
|↑12||Fish, eel, mixed species, cooked, dry heat. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑13||Fish, tuna, fresh, bluefin, cooked, dry heat.
|↑14||Fish, sturgeon, mixed species, smoked. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑15||Fish, mackerel, king, cooked, dry heat. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑16||Fish, herring, Atlantic, pickled. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑17||Fish, caviar, black and red, granular. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑18||Cheese, goat, hard type. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑19||Cheese, cheddar. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑20||Cheese, ricotta, whole milk. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑21||Margarine,spread, 35-39% fat, tub. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑22||Butter, salted. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑23||Egg, yolk, raw, fresh. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑24||Fish oil, cod liver. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑27||Milk, reduced fat, fluid, 1% milkfat, with added vitamin A and vitamin D. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑28||Peanut butter, smooth, vitamin and mineral fortified. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑29||Cereals ready-to-eat, chocolate-flavored frosted puffed corn. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑30||Beverages, rich chocolate, powder. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑31||Cereals, oats, instant, fortified, maple and brown sugar, dry. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|