Often laughingly referred to as “rabbit food”, carrots are actually a great source of carotene, fibre, and important micronutrients like potassium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin K, and, studies tell us, may be good for your eyes, heart, immune system, and blood sugar balance
The wild carrot is indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, with the most varieties springing up in modern-day Iran and Afghanistan. Historians have found evidence of human use of carrot seeds as far back as 4,000-5,000 years ago. In Egypt, Rome, and Greece, healers prescribed carrots as a healing remedy for numerous illnesses. Originally quite a bitter flavor, during their journey across centuries and continents, countless botanists have managed to improve the composition, look, flavour and size of ancient carrots and produce the modern orange-coloured carrot that appeared first in 17th century Netherlands. There doesn’t seem to be a biological advantage to an orange hue for the carrot, except that that’s what people seemed to like once they showed up.
The first evidence of carrot crops being grown specifically for food was in the Iranian Plateau and Persia during the 10th century. After that, they spread to Andalusia (modern-day Spain) and then to the rest of Europe. During this time, carrots were mainly purple, white, or yellow — a variety reminiscent of those rainbow packages of baby carrots you can find today in some grocery stores.
Carrots became a major player in American cuisine thanks to soldiers returning home with seeds, and more importantly, descriptions of delicious European dishes that featured them.
Types of Carrots
Domesticated carrots fall into two main categories. The first is the Eastern or Asiatic carrot, grown around the Himalayas. These types of carrots are rich in anthocyanins, pigmented antioxidants that make them primarily purple, yellow, or black. The second is the Western carrot, which grew largely in the Middle East and Turkey. These carrots are rich in carotenoids, which give them their orange, yellow, red, or white coloring.
You can purchase seeds for the whole rainbow of carrot colours in New Zealand, from orange through to white, yellow and purple and in a variety of sizes and flavours, and grow them in your own garden - they can be sown in spring, summer and autumn.
Carrot Health Benefits
Carrots are known for their high beta-carotene content. This carotenoid gives the most common orange and yellow varieties their color. Your body naturally converts beta-carotene to vitamin A, an important nutrient for things like eyesight and immunity. No matter what color of carrots you enjoy, you’re going to get a good dose of anti-oxidants. For instance, yellow carrots contain lutein, red carrots contain lycopene, purple carrots contain anthocyanins, and black carrots contain phenolic compounds.
Carrots are also low in calories and fat and high in complex carbohydrates and fibre, and they’re a good source of other micronutrients, like potassium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin K1.
Carrots have been studied for a number of specific health benefits. Were you ever told as a child to eat more carrots to see better at night? Well, while they’re not a miracle food for achieving superhuman night vision, carrots do certainly help, being rich in antioxidants like beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, all of which are known to help protect your eyes.
Studies have also shown that eating carrots may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, may be associated with a lower risk for breast cancer and stomach cancer, and could be helpful in improving heart health, as well as being beneficial for people with diabetes.
Carrots offer plenty of health benefits, but can you eat too many of them? Well, like pretty much anything else, you can still get too much of a good thing with carrots. Carrots, green leafy vegetables, and sweet potatoes contain provitamin A — in the form of beta-carotene and other carotenoids — that your body turns into vitamin A. But eating too many carrots could potentially contribute to vitamin A toxicity. Luckily, this is incredibly rare unless you’re eating many pounds of carrots per week, and you can usually make a complete recovery if the excessive ingestion of vitamin A stops.
It’s best to buy organic carrots if possible. Carrots can absorb pesticide residues from soils. And because the edible part is a root, they are fully immersed in the soil around them. When choosing carrots, look for ones that are firm, smooth, and brightly colored. The deeper the orange color, the more beta-carotene they contain (the same goes for other colors and their respective antioxidants). Avoid carrots with excessive cracks, as well as those that are limp or rubbery.
Carrots need some special consideration in your garden since they’re root vegetables. They need deep, loose soil and a consistent water source for the best results. If you want to grow long carrots, but don’t have a deep enough layer of topsoil to allow them to grow down unimpeded, consider building raised beds. Ideally, plant carrots in areas that receive full sun most of the time. It may take a few weeks for carrot seeds to germinate, but they’re typically ready for harvesting after approximately 50-75 days.
How to Cook & Prepare Carrots
Carrots are incredibly low maintenance. In fact, you don’t even need to peel them before you eat them: the peel contains most of the fibre and is a rich source of niacin and vitamin C. Just wash or scrub them if you want to remove dirt and pesticide residue from the surface.
Carrots are tasty, not only raw but also cooked and you can also eat their tops. And with carrots, raw isn’t necessarily better. In a 2003 comparative study3, significantly more beta-carotene was absorbed from meals containing cooked, pureed carrots than from meals containing the raw vegetable.
Either way, you can’t really go wrong with carrots. To get the most benefit, and the most versatility, consider rotating various methods of preparing them, including leaving them raw.
Carrots Are Not Just Rabbit Food
Carrots have a long history of usage, first as a spice and medicine, and then as a cultivated food. They have a number of health benefits due to their high levels of antioxidants like beta-carotene. Carrots are also a relatively sustainable crop from an environmental perspective. And this crunchy, delicious veggie can last for a long time in your kitchen, whether you use it in sweet or savory recipes.
So, although carrots are ‘Bugs Bunny approved’, as you can see, they are a lot more than just rabbit food.