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.

photo credit: andy tyler Flickr

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.

photo credit: minor9th photostream, Flickr

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.”

photo credit Ccharmon's photostream, Flickr


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:

FreeRange Life, Flickr

The World’s Healthiest Foods

This is a compendium of carrot nutrition

World Carrot Museum

This is an amazing site.  Every geeky detail you ever wanted to know about carrots – and more.

University of Illinois Extension

If you want to grow and preserve your own – this is the site to see.

4 replies

  1. I would argue that the World Carrot Museum is anything but geeky. Merely an education – A virtual museum whose mission is to educate, inform and amuse visitors through the collection, preservation, interpretation and exhibition of objects relating to the Carrot.

    As for the Romans and carrots, there are real, documented Roman recipes where carrots are specified by name, from the famous Apicius as 200 – These recipes specifically include carrots:

    1. Caroetae Frictea: oenogaro inferuntur – which was fried carrots served with oenogerum.

    2. Aliter Caroetas: sale, oleo puro et aceto – Another method: (raw or cooked) with salt, pure oil and vinegar.

    3. Caroetas Elixatus: concisas in cuminato oleo modico coques et inferes. – Boil the carrots and chop. Cook in cumin sauce with a little oil and serve – for those who have colic.

    Also Pliny the Elder mentioned carrots, separately from parsnips. There are many references in classical works from 0-ad200

    Enough from the carrot geek for now!

    • Oh dear!

      I did think twice about using the word geeky in reference to your amazing museum website for fear it would be misunderstood, and I’ll replace it, if you wish.
      Among my husband and daughters, “geeky” has become a compliment. I think of it as implying an enthusiasm for a topic that (while not always widely shared) is nonetheless entirely admirable.

      Please take as an indication of my sincerity in intending no slight that I included a link to your institution in my post. I would never refer others to a site that I did not find fascinating.

      I thank you most heartily for for adding to my knowledge of the carrot. I am foolishly fond of this vegetable. My husband and I have just completed the growing boxes for our small greenhouse, and one of the very first seeds we intend to plant in a few short months are those of the carrot. More than once, I have imagined eating the tender little things that will result from thinning. Very few foods compare with the flavor and beauty of a carrot fresh from the ground!

      I hope we are friends.
      From one geek to another,

  2. Hi, I just stumbled into your blog. It’s very informative and I’m glad that we share the love for this area in Wisconsin. May I add it to my Wisconsin blog list?

    • I’d be honored to be linked to your site. I’ve just given it my first look, and I like what I see. Looking forward to getting to know you better as both blog and real world neighbors!

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