Carrots are root vegetables that were first cultivated in modern-day Iran and Afghanistan almost 5,000 years ago. Early carrots were purple or yellow, the orange ones we are so familiar with were developed much later, it is thought, in Central Europe. Today, most carrots sold are orange but purple, red, white and yellow varieties are available if you look for them.
Orange carrot myth
The idea that Dutch farmers were the first to grow orange carrots, as a tribute to William of Orange, has been debunked by scientists who say orange carrots are featured in Spanish and Italian artwork from the early 1500s, over 100 years before William III was born.
A goldmine of antioxidants
Like other brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, carrots are a goldmine of antioxidants. Compounds they contain, called carotenoids and anthocyanins, not only give them their vibrant colour but also confer antioxidant health benefits. Antioxidants prevent damage to our cells from unstable molecules called free radicals. If not kept in check, free radicals can lead to damage that in turn can lead to health problems from cataracts to cancer and other degenerative diseases.
Antioxidants found in carrots include:
- Beta-carotene – gives carrots their orange colour, is converted to vitamin A
- Alpha-carotene – a weaker version of beta-carotene
- Lycopene – in red carrots, linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer
- Lutein – in yellow and purple carrots, protect eye health
While orange carrots contain large amounts of carotenoids, purple carrots have very high concentrations of anthocyanins, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Diets rich in anthocyanin-containing fruits and vegetables are associated with lower levels of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and some cancers.
Other health benefits
The red-orange pigment beta-carotene, found in plants and fruits, is converted in the body into vitamin A. Carrots are a particularly rich source but also provide other important nutrients including vitamins B6 and K, biotin and potassium. Carrots rank low on the glycaemic index, which is a measure of how quickly foods raise our blood sugar after a meal. So carrots are useful for people who need to control their blood sugar levels. One medium carrot (60 grams) contains over two grams of fibre, which not only helps control blood sugar levels but feeds the friendly bacteria in your gut and may also help lower cholesterol.
Do carrots help you see in the dark?
We were told as children that carrots would give us super-power night vision and whilst this may have been an exaggeration, like all good myths, there’s a tiny bit of truth in it because beta-carotene is used by the body to produce a special pigment in our eyes that allows us to see in low-light conditions.
The myth that carrots improve eyesight has its roots (excuse the pun) in a World War II propaganda campaign when the British Royal Air Force spread the rumour to hide the fact that they had developed new radar technology that was enabling their pilots to shoot down enemy planes at night. The Government wanted to keep the new equipment secret so they started an advertising campaign saying that carrots could help you see in the blackout. However, unless you are actually deficient in vitamin A, carrots probably won’t help you see better in the dark and high doses of vitamin A (eg from supplements or animal foods such as liver and liver pâté which are very high in vitamin A) can be dangerous.
Too much vitamin A
The NHS says that men need 700 micrograms of vitamin A a day and women, 600 micrograms. A single very large dose (over 200,000 micrograms) may cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision and problems with coordination. Taking more than 10,000 micrograms a day over time can lead to bone thinning, liver damage, joint pain and may cause birth defects. An average 100-gram portion of cooked liver contains between 10,000 and 25,000 micrograms and experts warn that eating liver regularly over time could lead to osteoporosis.
High intakes of beta-carotene from vegetables do not cause the same problems as preformed vitamin A and studies show that diets rich in carotenoids such as beta-carotene are linked to a lower risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. They may also protect against cataracts and the most common cause of vision loss – age-related macular degeneration. However, you need the whole food to get these benefits and not a supplement. High-dose supplements with beta-carotene (either alone or with vitamins E or A), do not reduce the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease and may even be harmful to smokers or former asbestos workers.
How to make the most of carrots
Unlike most vegetables, carrots may actually become healthier through cooking because this makes it easier for our bodies to absorb their protective antioxidants. In a similar way, cooking tomatoes increases the availability of the protective antioxidant lycopene. One study found that stir-frying carrots increased the availability of carotenoids in the body by more than six times. Beta-carotene is a fat-soluble nutrient, which means that it is best absorbed by the body when eaten with fat. This doesn’t require a lot – just three to five grams of fat in the meal should be enough to ensure proper absorption.
This root vegetable comes in many colours and sizes making it the perfect snack – crunchy, packed with nutrients and low in fat. Carrots are associated with many health benefits including a lower risk of several diseases and are a great addition to a healthy diet.