Are farmer’s markets carrots looking a little funky to you lately? Deep purple, dark red, white and bright yellow varieties may have you wondering what got into the fertilizer.
Carrots are one of the most basic and familiar of all the vegetables, but researchers have been changing up their colors and nutrient content to introduce entirely new varieties to U.S. consumers. Although geneticists have been creating these colorful carrots for many years now, they’re just starting to become popular among small-scale farmers, which means they are starting to earn shelf space at your local farmer’s market.
The food: People around the world have eaten carrots for thousands of years, and food historians estimate that we’ve been enjoying orange carrots since the 1500s. Orange appears to be passe in the carrot world, however, since scientists working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other institutions have been exploring more colorful versions — think bright yellow, purple and red — to market. These rainbow-hued carrots grow around the world in countries in Central Asia and in the Mediterranean, but are still a novelty in the United States.
Why the fuss? It’s not just about the color; researchers with the Agricultural Research Service at the Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wisconsin have been playing with carrot stocks to breed even more nutrients into the antioxidant-rich vegetable. The team is lead by plant geneticist Philipp Simon, who has been carrot-obsessed for 35 years. “At first we were looking at how to make a more uniformly orange carrot, since consumers are shown to prefer a solid color,” says Simon. “But in the 1980s there was a lot of information from nutritionists about the nutritional quality of pigment. So we are trying to develop carrots that are unusual, but still acceptable to consumers.”
Simon and his team not only want the carrots to be easy for American farmers to grow, but they want them to taste good and offer greater health benefits too. Thanks to Simon’s efforts, carrots today have about 75% more beta-carotene (a pigment used by the body to make vitamin A) than the carrots available 25 years ago. His team at the University of Wisconsin partners with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, which supports scientists working on ways to improve Americans’ nutritional intake.
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The trend: When it comes to carrots, most of us still prefer ours orange. Simon admits that farm and consumer acceptance of the vegetables is a challenge (he says he received a fair share of eye rolls from large scale growers when he first suggested bringing purple carrots to groceries), but many smaller farms that frequent city markets are stocking up. I haven’t seen many colorful varieties in my neighborhood grocery store yet, but the farmer’s market I visit has been full of them this summer. “Small-scale growers and local growers for farmers’ markets are generally quite willing to try some of these more unusual colors,” says Simon. “They serve as striking niche market items that kind of advertise themselves because people are not used to seeing purple carrots.”
Another plus — kids tend to be a bit more adventurous than their parents and willing to give purple carrots a try, and anything that helps children to enjoy vegetables more shouldn’t be ignored.
The nutrients: Carrots are jammed with a wealth of nutrients, and medium-sized sticks are only 25 calories. Standard orange carrots contain vitamin A, and the other hued carrots are equally healthy. Here’s a brief break-down:
- Orange: Beta and alpha carotene pigment. This promotes vitamin A production by the body, which is essential for healthy eyes.
- Purple: Anthocyanin, beta and alpha carotene pigment. Purple carrots typically have an orange core, and their pigment-related nutrients may provide additional vitamin A and prevent heart disease.
- Red: Lycopene and beta-carotene pigment. Lycopene is the same red pigment that gives tomatoes their deep color and is linked to a lower risk of certain cancers, such as prostate cancer.
- Yellow: Xanthophykks and lutein. Both are linked to cancer prevention and better eye health.
- White: The nutrients don’t come from the pigment but from the fiber, which promotes healthy digestion.
“We want to expand the color and taste palate for consumers since we are so sorely lacking in fruit and vegetable consumption in the U.S.,” says Simon. “If we can get someone to eat another serving of carrots because it has an unusual color, that benefits our consumers. We have a problem not only with low intake of certain nutrients, but with obesity. Fruit and vegetable consumption is always listed as an area [in which] we can do better.”
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The preparation: Carrots are one of the simplest vegetables to prepare — and even easier to eat raw. Interestingly, Simon says that in the majority of other countries where colorful carrots are more prevalent, people usually cook, stir-fry or boil them. “That’s historically how they have been consumed in the rest of the world,” says Simon. “Like yellow carrots in Central Asia or Uzbekistan or purple carrots in Turkey. It’s only in the last 50 years that carrots have been have been eaten raw, but that’s a big market for the U.S. today and we are trying to expand it.” (See salad recipe below).
The taste: Rainbow colored carrots do taste different from Bugs’ favorite variety. I picked up a batch of purple and white ones from the farmer’s market, and thought the white variety tasted relatively mild, while the purple carrots
were sweeter than the orange carrots I am used to. However, I’ve been warned that purple carrots can also have a peppery flavor, which could make it an interesting side dish for chicken dishes. The flavoring of colored carrots is still being finessed, however, and according to Simon, the best is yet to come. He and his team are in the process of breeding carrots with stronger flavors not yet seen in the U.S. yet. “We have some very good tasting red carrots that are derived from a cross between Korean and Chinese carrots,” he says.
The takeaway: There’s still plenty of time to pick up these new twists on a classic vegetable–farmers will keep harvesting carrots until the ground freezes. And keep looking for new and unusual colors — and flavors — in the next few years as scientists continue to cross breed foreign varieties and refine new flavors.
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Shredded Beet & Carrot Salad
Beets (as many as desired)
Carrots (as many as desired) use white or golden for a little healthy sweetener
Organic Rice Wine Vinegar
Tessemae’s All-Natural Hot Sauce
Peel carrots and beets and shred them in a food processor. Blend Tamari, rice wine vinegar, and a hefty dash of Tessemae’s Hot Sauce together with some onion, ginger, and a garlic scape (taste for balance). Toss shredded veggies in with mixture. Drizzle with a little olive oil (to taste). Dress up the salad by serving it on a bed of torn romaine and drizzle with dressing for an extra boost of flavor.