What’s Up Doc ?
Carrots (Daucus Carota) are probably the most widely consumed vegetable there is, they sell second only to potatoes, (which are actually tubers, not vegetables). Carrots are cheap, readily available and very nutritious. They are also amazingly versatile.
All of which is no bad thing when we look at the nutritional value that they provide.
Carrots originated several thousand years ago in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The Greeks and Romans used them, but it wasn’t until the middle Ages that the Arabs introduced them to Europe.
When carrots were first cultivated, they were originally grown for their healing properties, the green leafy tops were used for medicinal purposes. The roots themselves were virtually inedible, being too fibrous and bitter to eat. Only by modifying crops over the years did they become edible………. And orange!
It’s true that in their original form, carrots were actually purple or black. These and other varieties are making a comeback now, which is good news as these darker carrots have even more nutritional value.
The orange version was cultivated in the Netherlands in the 17c. It was reportedly grown in honor of William of Orange, but this tale is probably apocryphal. However there is another urban myth, which is true.
During WWII, the British spread propaganda that carrots were good for your eyes. Whilst this has been shown to be true (more later), the real reason behind the story was to try and hide, from the Nazis, the fact that the British had discovered radar. The sudden accuracy of the RAF, during night raids, in being able to locate and shoot down Nazi bombers needed to be played down by the British government. It also had a twofold effect in encouraging the public to grow their own vegetables to help with the war effort. The popularity of these allotments (small patches of land for people without gardens to grow their own produce) continues to this day in the UK.
What’s so good about carrots?
Carrots contain a staggering amount of phytochemicals. Much is being said about these compounds with little explanation. The word ‘phyto’ is Greek for plant, so phytochemicals are literally ‘plant chemicals’. These have been shown to be the medicinal factor, which makes fruit and vegetables healthy. They are usually found to be the pigment colour, which is what makes bright colorful fruit and vegetables particularly beneficial to health.
In carrots it is in the form of the orange beta-carotene, which is what most people think of in carrots. Alpha carotene is also found in carrots and according to Michiaki Murakoshi at Japan’s Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, alpha carotene may be more beneficial to preventing cancerous tumor growths.
Beta-carotene is certainly a very powerful anti-oxidant, and is crucial in the battle against cancer growth, heart disease and premature aging. Premature aging is not just looking older quicker. It is actually descriptive of the damage caused by free radicals, which speeds up the aging process and makes us more vulnerable to degenerative diseases. Anti-oxidants are the main combatants to free radicals.
Beta-carotene is also converted in the body into vitamin-A (a single carrot can provide the whole daily allowance). According to the WHO vitamin-A deficiency blinds, or partially blinds, over 300,000 children a year worldwide. Carrots also contain lutein, which has been shown to help combat macular degeneration. Up until recently it was unsure whether the body could access the lutein in carrots, but now tests at University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that over 65% of the lutein is available biologically. People with a high intake of carotenoids have been shown to be up to 60% less likely to suffer from age related macular degeneration. Eating carrots, as we can see (excuse the pun), is very good for the eyes due to a combination of lutein and the vitamin-A content. So they weren’t very far from the truth in WWII.
Carrots are also a good source of vitamins B,C,D, and E, and potassium, copper, folic acid, magnesium and calcium pectate, a pectin fiber that has been found to have cholesterol-lowering properties. The green tops are rich in vitamin-K, which oddly, is absent in the carrot itself.
It is true that carrots are said to have many benefits, such as,
immunity boosting, wound healing, reduced acne, and strangely alcohol withdrawal. Apparently when eaten regularly they help to cleanse the liver by excreting fats and bile.
According to the Greeks, carrots were beneficial in digestion. Being used to treat upset stomachs, ulcers, gastritis, Crohn’s disease, diarrhea and celiac disorders.
There really are myriad health benefits attributed to the good old carrot.
The Raw or The Cooked
There are various camps when it comes to cooked versus raw when eating carrots. The answer is that both have their benefits so it is entirely up to you. Eating raw vegetables is generally more healthy for you it is true. However with the carrot, due to the cellular nature, unless it is juiced, the body cannot break down the goodness. Add to this the fact that, according to research carried out at the Institute of Food Research, the body can only absorb 5% of the beta carotene when they are raw, compared to 60% when cooked. Another interesting fact is that cooking carrots before slicing them increases their anti-cancer properties by 25%. According to research by Dr. Kirsten Brandt, at Newcastle University, carrots that have been cooked before slicing contain one quarter more of the anti-cancer compound falcarinol. Whilst we are on the subject of slicing or peeling before cooking, a large proportion of the nutrients of carrots are in the skin. So peeling them reduces their goodness, by up to 15%. In answer to questions I get about this and pesticides in the skins of vegetables. If a vegetable has been treated with pesticides, the chemicals are going to be in the vegetable themselves as well, and if it is of concern then you should be buying organic produce! You will have to decide for yourself as to how you prefer your carrots. The following recipes may help you decide!
As I mentioned before, carrots in their original form were purple or black. These varieties have recently been reintroduced, unfortunately they haven’t proved terribly popular so you are more likely to find them in farmers markets than the supermarket.
This is a shame as the darker colored carrots are more beneficial. This is due to the their pigment color, anthocyanin, which is an even more potent anti-oxidant than beta carotene.
Orange Carrots – Contain beta-carotene and alpha carotene. High in vitamin-A essential for well being and healthy eyes. Originate from Middle East and Europe
Yellow Carrots – Contain xanthophylls and lutein, pigments similar to beta-carotene. Originate from the Middle East.
Red Carrots – Colored by lycopene (another carotene), a pigment also found in tomatoes and watermelon. It is associated with reduced risk of macular degeneration, heart disease, lipid oxidation and a variety of cancers. Originate from China and India.
Purple carrots – Contain beta-carotene and anthocyanins, both shown to slow down free radical damage. Anthocyanins also help prevent heart disease by slowing blood clotting and are a good anti-inflammatory. Originate in Turkey, Middle East and Far East.
Black Carrots – Also contain anthocyanins, which are particularly active in black carrots. They are said to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. An oil made from their seeds can help control scalp itchiness and provides nutrients needed for hair growth. Originate from Turkey, Middle East and Far East.
White Carrots – The ‘least’ healthy of all the carrots. These lack pigments but do contain other phytochemicals. Originate Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.