How Lutein Supports Kids' Vision & Learning

Getting kids to eat their vegetables isn’t always easy, but most parents know it’s worth the struggle. Kids are growing at a rapid pace, and they need a broad range of nutrients to help fuel their physical and mental development. Fruits and veggies are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, and a variety of other beneficial compounds, including carotenoids.

Carotenoids are antioxidants that are best known for their role in supporting eye health throughout life. Carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the retina of the eye very early in life and are involved in supporting eye development. Recent research indicates that lutein may also play a role in brain development and help support children’s cognitive function.[1]

Carotenoids for Eye Health

Carotenoids are natural pigments found in colorful fruits and veggies. Their red, orange, and yellow hues give vibrant color to the autumn leaves, as well as to foods such as squash, bell peppers, and carrots, from which they get their name. These pigments help protect plants from the damaging effects of high energy light, and they offer similar benefits for the human eye.

When you were growing up, did your mom tell you that eating carrots was good for your eyes?  That’s because carrots are (naturally) rich in carotenoids – particularly beta carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A, an important nutrient for eye health. But carrots also contain another carotenoid that is less well known, but just as important for your eyes: lutein.

Lutein is a yellow carotenoid typically found in leafy greens and yellow or orange vegetables and fruits, including spinach, kale, corn, pumpkin, sweet potato, avocados, and oranges. It is typically found together with zeaxanthin, another carotenoid which appears in smaller amounts. They seem to work cooperatively and are more effective as antioxidants when combined.[2]

Lutein and zeaxanthin are highly concentrated in the macula of the human eye. In fact, they are the only two carotenoids that can cross the blood-retina barrier to form macular pigment in the retina.1 This pigment helps protect the eye’s photoreceptors by filtering high-energy blue light and minimizing oxidative stress from free radicals, which can damage vision over time.[3]

Higher levels of lutein in the body are correlated with a higher concentration of macular pigment, or Macular Pigment Optical Density (MPOD). Having more MPOD is linked with better visual performance and a reduced risk of developing age-related eye health issues later in life.[4] All the more reason to eat those veggies! Supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin has also been shown to help improve MPOD, as well as vision and cognitive performance.1,[5]

Lutein and Children’s Vision

Lutein and zeaxanthin begin to accumulate in the eye during pregnancy and infancy. The fact that lutein is preferentially absorbed into the retinal tissue suggests that it plays a key role in the retina’s development.1 Early life is a period of rapid development and high oxidative stress, and lutein and zeaxanthin are thought to provide crucial antioxidant protection for the developing eye.1,[6]

As children grow older, their eyes are exposed to more environmental sources of oxidative stress, including UV rays from the sun and blue light from electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones. Because children’s eyes don’t filter blue light as well as adult eyes do, their eyes are more vulnerable to cumulative stress from high energy light exposure.6

This has become a cause for concern, as modern children are spending increasingly long hours looking at electronic screens. Studies suggest that prolonged, frequent exposure to video games and other electronic screens may have a negative impact on children’s visual development, increasing the risk of short-term and long-term visual issues and discomfort.6,[7]

With this in mind, it makes sense to be proactive about protecting children’s eye health, including making sure they are getting enough lutein. Studies have found that low levels of lutein increase the risk of eye damage from blue light, and that supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin has a protective effect against such damage.3 It’s one of the reasons we include lutein and zeaxanthin in both of our children’s multivitamins.

Lutein and the Young Brain

Though lutein is best known for its eye health benefits, recent research reveals that it may also play an important role in the brain. Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only dietary carotenoids known to cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain after being consumed. Lutein is selectively absorbed into the brain in early life, making up about 60% of the carotenoids in the infant brain, while only representing about 12% of carotenoids in the infant diet.1 All this suggests that lutein has a role to play in the developing brain, as well as the eye.

This makes sense, since the eye and the brain are very closely connected. They form from the same neural tube, and they grow and develop together, working as partners to interpret visual information. The eye sends signals to the brain through the optic nerve, and the brain translates the information into a picture, helping the infant learn to understand the environment. As children grow older and begin to read words and symbols, the eye and brain continue to work together to reorganize information and form new connections.6

Lutein seems to support both visual and cognitive function in children. Recent studies have found that children with higher levels of lutein, as reflected by a higher MPOD, perform better on cognitive tests and show higher academic achievement than those with lower MPOD.[8][9] In another study, children with higher MPOD showed less brain activity while performing a cognitive task, meaning that they had to work less hard to complete the task, while also making fewer errors.[10] The evidence suggests that lutein is important for optimizing children’s brain health and can help support their learning.

Giving Kids a Lutein Boost

Now that we know how important lutein is for young eyes and brains, how can we make sure the kids are getting enough? Kids are often hesitant to eat much of any one vegetable, so it’s a good idea to vary your lutein sources. Luckily, lutein is present in a wide range of fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs, so you can give your kids a lutein boost in small amounts throughout the day.

The body absorbs lutein better when it’s combined with some fat, so think about cooking veggies like sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, carrots, or broccoli with a little butter or olive oil. Avocados are a great source of lutein because they already contain fat, and they are easy to use in sandwiches, salads, wraps, and dips. Eggs also include both lutein and fat, and are very versatile for cooking.

One easy way to sneak kids more fruits and veggies is to make a smoothie. Throw in some blueberries and spinach for lutein and add a little yogurt, milk, or plant-milk for fat. Squashes like zucchini can also be grated and added discreetly to spaghetti sauce, pizza, or baked breads. Grapes also make a great snack for kids, and you can freeze them in the summer for an instant treat.

Even with the best of intentions, it can be tricky covering all of the kids’ nutritional bases. A daily children’s multivitamin can help fill the gaps and provide kids with an extra boost of key nutrients to support their healthy growth and development. Our Chewable Multivitamin for Children and Whole Food Multivitamin Gummies for Kids are both great-tasting options that provide over 20 vitamins and minerals for kids, plus lutein and zeaxanthin from marigold flowers.

References 

[1] James M Stringham, Elizabeth J Johnson, B Randy Hammond, Lutein across the Lifespan: From Childhood Cognitive Performance to the Aging Eye and Brain, Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 3, Issue 7, July 2019, nzz066, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzz066

[2] Li, Binxing et al. “Studies on the singlet oxygen scavenging mechanism of human macular pigment.” Archives of biochemistry and biophysics vol. 504,1 (2010): 56-60. doi:10.1016/j.abb.2010.07.024

[3] Roberts, Joan E, and Jessica Dennison. “The Photobiology of Lutein and Zeaxanthin in the Eye.” Journal of ophthalmology vol. 2015 (2015): 687173. doi:10.1155/2015/687173

[4] Mares, Julie. “Lutein and Zeaxanthin Isomers in Eye Health and Disease.” Annual review of nutrition vol. 36 (2016): 571-602. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-071715-051110

[5] Lisa M Wilson, Saraniya Tharmarajah, Yuanxi Jia, Richard D Semba, Debra A Schaumberg, Karen A Robinson, The Effect of Lutein/Zeaxanthin Intake on Human Macular Pigment Optical Density: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 12, Issue 6, November 2021, Pages 2244–2254, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmab071

[6] Gazzolo, Diego et al. “Early Pediatric Benefit of Lutein for Maturing Eyes and Brain-An Overview.” Nutrients vol. 13,9 3239. 17 Sep. 2021, doi:10.3390/nu13093239

[7] Rechichi C, De Mojà G, Aragona P. Video Game Vision Syndrome: A New Clinical Picture in Children? J Pediatr Ophthalmol Strabismus. 2017 Nov 1;54(6):346-355. doi: 10.3928/01913913-20170510-01. Epub 2017 Aug 29. PMID: 28850642.

[8] Barnett SM, Khan NA, Walk AM, Raine LB, Moulton C, Cohen NJ, Kramer AF, Hammond BR Jr, Renzi-Hammond L, Hillman CH. Macular pigment optical density is positively associated with academic performance among preadolescent children. Nutr Neurosci. 2018 Nov;21(9):632-640. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1329976. Epub 2017 May 23. PMID: 28535707; PMCID: PMC6251725.

[9] Saint, Sarah E et al. “The Macular Carotenoids are Associated with Cognitive Function in Preadolescent Children.” Nutrients vol. 10,2 193. 10 Feb. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10020193

[10] Walk AM, Khan NA, Barnett SM, Raine LB, Kramer AF, Cohen NJ, Moulton CJ, Renzi-Hammond LM, Hammond BR, Hillman CH. From neuro-pigments to neural efficiency: the relationship between retinal carotenoids and behavioral and neuroelectric indices of cognitive control in childhood. Int J Psychophysiol 2017;118:1–8.