Ever wonder how Bugs Bunny always cleaned Elmer Fudd’s clock?
Which one was eating carrots?
Those brilliant orange, satisfyingly crunchy roots power packed with carotene are actually a newcomer in the 12,000-year-old world of agriculture. Carrots are a domesticated form of Queen Anne’s lace, and have been traced back to the Romans.
Roman carrots were different than the kind we know and love today. They were yellow or purple. (As carrots don’t tend to turn up in archeological digs, most of this research has actually been done by studying old paintings.)
I learned all this at Wednesday Nite at the Lab, “Plants, People, Carrots and Carotenes,” by Dr. Philip Simon of the Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is part of the USDA Carrot Improvement Program and has collected wild and cultivated carrots all over the world.
What’s so great about a carrot? Carotenes. Carotenes are pigments that occur in all green leaves. (Though you usually can’t see them till the green fades in fall.) Photosynthesis evidently creates some nasty by-products, and carotenes help protect the leaves against them.
How did carotenes end up in the roots of carrots where very little photosynthesis occurs? Well, humans probably selected for orange roots just because we thought it was pretty.
Orange carrots didn’t appear till the 1600s, and were probably bred to achieve that vivid hue. They may well have been the food fad of their era.
Those early carrot growers didn’t even realize that by increasing the orange color, they were increasing carotenes which are the precursors to vitamin A. The vitamin A in milk comes from the carotene in the plants cows eat.
Carrot breeders have been at it again. Since the 1950s the amount of carotene in carrots has been more than doubled. Carrots are now the most plentiful source of carotene in the U.S. diet.
Carotene is good for us. It helps prevent both night blindness and macular degeneration. We all know about an apple a day, but as little as 2/3 of a carrot a day can provide all the carotene we need.
Vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries, but lack of vitamin A reduces our immune function, and more extreme deficiency can cause permanent blindness. World wide, as many as 3 million, mainly children, die from vitamin A deficiency every year.
Dr. Simon says researchers are coming close to sequencing the genes of carrots. “We are looking to improve their flavor,” he says, “Then people will eat more carrots and increase their vitamin A consumption. To get people to eat more fruits and vegetables – you have to make them more attractive.”
WHAT’S UP, DOC?
Q. Are you peeling away the most nutritious part when you peel a carrot?
A. No. You are wasting a little carrot, but unlike the apple, there is no dramatic change in nutrition in the skin.
Q. Speaking of apples, should you store them near carrots?
A. Again, no. Apples give off ethylene. It can turn carrots bitter. Store apples higher in the fridge as far from carrots as you can. Store carrots in a plastic bag, but because the do breath you need to open the bag periodically. Store them close to freezing and at 100 percent humidity.
Q. Currently 70 percent of all U.S. carrots come from two major factories in California, is all the carotene leaking out in transit?
A. No. Carotene is fairly stable, but as always, the most nutrition is found in fresh, locally grown vegetables.
If you want to know even more about carrots, check out these websites:
This is a compendium of carrot nutrition
This is an amazing site. Every geeky detail you ever wanted to know about carrots – and more.
If you want to grow and preserve your own – this is the site to see.
Categories: SUSTAINABLE FOOD