Carrots: The Versatile Vegetable
Carrots are a root vegetable native to Afghanistan, southwest Asia, and Europe. They have a thick taproot and a leafy green top. While all of the carrot is edible, including the greens and the seeds (which can be used to flavor stews), most people prefer to eat the taproot for its sweet crispiness.
Why are carrots sweet? Because they store large amounts of sugar in preparation for their biennial flowering.
As a member of the umbelliferae family, carrots are related to celery, fennel, and parsnips. Domestic carrots, tastier and less woody than their wild counterparts, should be crisp when fresh. Carrots vary in shape, size, and in color. While primarily orange, you may be surprised to learn carrots do come in an astonishing rainbow of colors, including purple, red, yellow, white, and even black.
There are more than 100 species of carrots, ranging in size from three-and-a-half-inch Little Fingers to nine-inch Imperators. According to the Cornell University Growing Guide, the varieties generally are grouped into six types:
- Imperators: This slender carrot stretches up to 10 inches long and tapers to a point. High in sugar with abundant foliage, Imperators are the most common commercially grown carrot.
- Danvers or Danvers Half-Longs: Tracing their roots to Danvers, Massachusetts, these carrots are up to seven inches long, wide at the top and conical in shape. Valued for their texture and bold flavor, Danvers work well fresh or processed. They also store well.
- Nantes: Sporting sparser foliage and a blunt tip, Nantes carrots tolerate a variety of growing conditions and still deliver a sweet flavor. With a more brittle root, they don't store as well. Best eaten fresh.
- Chantenays: This much shorter carrot tops out at about five inches. Think short and wider with a blunt rounded tip. Chantenays handle all soil types and are easy to harvest. These tasty carrots are used in processing and store well.
- Amsterdams: This early carrot, growing between three and four inches long, ripens quickly. Slender and somewhat delicate, these carrots provide a sweet bite.
- Paris Market (Round): Another early producer, these short carrots round out at 1- to 2-inches in diameter. They tolerate hard and rocky soils.
The World Carrot Museum yes, there is such a placelists the following varieties as sweet tasting: Nairobi, Bolero, Ithaca, Little Finger, Nantes Half Long, Purple Dragon, Chantenay, Scarlet Nantes, St. Valery, and Touchon. Learn more about carrot varieties at Cornell University's Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners.
A Colorful Past
Today's carrots bear little resemblance to their Asian ancestorsvarieties of wild carrots dating back about 3,000 years and more commonly used medicinally. Some form of carrot is mentioned as early as the first century and they also appear in Spain, India, and Europe in the eighth and 10th centuries. These carrots of old were color-rich purples, greens, and yellows.
Carrots as we know them appear to have come from Afghanistan. Daucus carota sativa, the botanical name of the domesticated carrot, loosely traces its roots back to the middle of the 17th century. Generally, credit is given to the Dutch for developing a more refined carrotless woody and less bitter with plenty of sweetness.
With the Dutch improvements, carrots became a reliable food source in solid and juice form. In the Middle Ages, carrot juice was used to improve the coloring of butter while carrots were used in decorations and their green tops adorned women's hair. As Europeans took up residence in the colonies, carrots made their way to North America sometime in the 17th century. Thomas Jefferson, an avid gardener at his Monticello home, noted the progress of his "yellow carrots."
A 1989 innovation, peeled mini-carrots (also called "baby" carrots), boosted the vegetable's popularity turning it into a handy snack today for both kids and adults. As such, the average American consumes around 12 pounds of carrots annually.
This convenient snack soon became a household staple and is the most popular carrot "variety" in U.S. stores. However, baby carrots aren't babies at all. These mini-carrots begin as long, slender carrots harvested near maturity. They are cleaned, cut to two inches in length, peeled, and packaged in plastic bags as the flavorful bestseller. These ready-to-eat baby carrots intended for snacking and meal preparation usually remain fresh four or five weeks.
The hardy carrot is a cool season crop. It tolerates a wide variety of temperatures, except extreme heat. Some believe colder weather and frost makes them even sweeter. Carrots prefer fertile deep soils, but are flexible about most conditions, making them an ideal crop for home gardens with little clay content. Longer varieties do require deep, loose, stone-free soil. With this flexibility, and few pests and diseases targeting carrots, growers can rotate plantings for a continual crop throughout the growing season.
Carrot seeds germinate slowly and mature in two to four months depending on the variety planted. The Cornell University Growing Guide recommends planting short-season varieties for summer eating. Longer-season varieties work well for fall harvest and long-term storage. Since carrots don't transplant well, start seeds outside as soon as the soil is workable.
Due to their slow germination, carrots can be planted with other crops, including radishes. Pulling the radishes thins the carrots for continued growth. They also thrive when planted near beans, leeks, peppers, tomatoes, and leaf lettuces.
Keep your rows of carrots weed free and provide steady moisture. But be aware that a major cause of carrot damage is cracking or splitting, which can result from too much water near maturity.
China leads the world in carrot production (34 percent in 2008), followed by Russia, with the United States weighing in as the third largest producer of the vegetable. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC), "Total U.S. carrot production for the fresh and processing markets was valued at nearly $642.8 million in 2012."
Carrots are either grown from seeds or are raised from roots called "stecklings." About 85 percent of hybrid carrot seed that supplies fresh carrot producers in the U.S. is grown in Central Oregon. However, within the states, Californiawhere carrots grow year rounddominates the majority of fresh carrot production, providing 80 percent of the vegetable. Michigan and Texas weigh in as the next contenders in the fresh market. Top producers of carrots for the processing market in 2012 include Wisconsin (37 percent), Washington (31 percent), California, and Minnesota.
In addition to consumption by citizens of the U.S., a large number of carrots are exported to Canada, which buys 90 percent of the U.S.'s domestic carrot exports. The second largest consumer of American carrots is Mexico (5 percent). In an interesting twist, the two largest suppliers of imported carrots for the U.S. areCanada and Mexico. Israel was the top source of raw frozen carrots imported into the U.S. in 2012.
While consumer demand for carrots varies, they remain an important vegetable throughout the world appearing in many cuisines and are heavily used in salads. They are valued for their convenience, taste, and health benefits. In the U.S., according to AgMRC, "In this century, carrots have largely been used as a popular cooking vegetable, salad item, snack food, and raw vegetable. In addition, value-added products, including peeled baby carrots and other fresh -cut items, have gained in popularity."
Nutrition & health benefits
Carrots appeal to adults and children with their taste and convenienceand with good reason. This fat free vegetable is low in sodium, cholesterol free, low in calories, and provides abundant vitamin A and K. In addition, they provide other elements important to health, including dietary fiber, vitamin C, and potassium along with an assortment of B vitamins and other minerals.
Here are some specific areas where carrots provide health benefits.
Several studies have revealed clear benefits for eye health tied to carrot consumption. Vitamin A is crucial for healthy eyes, and a deficiency can affect night vision. One cup of raw carrots delivers a whopping 113 percent of the daily value of vitamin A. In addition to providing a boost for the eyes, vitamin A impacts skin, hair and nails, and maintains cell health, helping fight infection.
Research shows that free radicals cause damage to cell membranes, result in DNA mutation, and can lead to a host of degenerative diseases such as arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and more. Antioxidant-rich foods help combat these free radicals and help prevent the damage they cause.
Carrots deliver crucial amounts of these nutrients, including vitamin C and phytonutrients beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein, and a host of others, depending on the color of the carrot. Orange carrots deliver more beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A), while yellow carrots provide more lutein (also considered important to eye health). Want to learn more? Visit here.
Our busy American lifestyle often leads to heavy reliance on processed foods, which means not enough fiber. Fiber improves and maintains intestinal health and helps lower cholesterol levels which factors into heart health. A fiber-rich diet also aids in weight management thus reducing risk for type 2 diabetes. A serving of carrots can provide 10 percent of the body's fiber needs.
Our gastrointestinal tracks benefit from the fiber and beta-carotene in carrots. In addition to the cancer-fighting antioxidant properties in carrots, they also contain falcarinol and falcarindiol. The World's Healthiest Foods (WHFoods) website reports recent findings from a 10-year study in the Netherlands, pointing to these ingredients as beneficial in inhibiting the growth of colon cancer cells. Beta-carotene also may help reduce mouth, throat, and lung cancers.
One cup of raw carrots provides 11 percent of a person's daily requirement of potassium, which influences and controls heart rate. The beta-carotene in carrots also helps reduce risk of heart disease. Some studies show this may be by as much as 45 percent. Carrots also may reduce risk of high blood pressure and even reduce cholesterol. According to WHFoods, the previously mentioned study in the Netherlands determined that foods of a deep orange color emerged as "the most protective against" cardiovascular disease and "carrots were determined to be the most prominent member of this dark orange/yellow food category ."
Carrots are inexpensive and available in stores year round. Without a set "season," selecting carrots requires a good eye.
- Shape: Choose carrots seven to eight inches in length for better taste. Bigger carrots can be woodier and less sweet, while medium-sized carrots can be easier to dice and cook. Shapes should be fairly uniform and firm.
- Texture: Avoid limp or soft or wilting carrots that bend. Carrots should be crisp and heavy. Feel for firmness and a smoother surface. Inspect for cracks, as split carrots are undesirable.
- Color: Prefer rich coloring of the taproot with no yellow tips. Also look for fresh green tops. Wilted or shriveled tops can indicate old age. Some sources recommend avoiding carrots with green sprouts at the top in addition to or instead of their leafy tops, which also can indicate an older carrot and possibly a woody core.
Carrot Storage Tips
If refrigeration isn't possible, a root cellar or cool area in a basement can accommodate unwashed carrots for long-term storage of four to nine months in sand or sawdust. Otherwise, carrots should be refrigerated at 32 to 40 degrees F. Avoid placing carrots near apples, pears, bananas, citrus, or avocados as these ethylene-producing fruits can affect carrot viability and alter taste resulting in bitterness.
These guidelines for refrigeration apply to the popular snack-size baby carrots as well. A world leader in carrot production, California's Grimmway Farms notes that "whitening of peeled baby carrots is due to natural dryness." They recommend a quick ice water bath to "freshen and restore color."
Most sources recommend removing the greens before storing. Then place in a plastic bag up to two weeks in the vegetable drawer of a refrigerator. A little moisture in the bag will help keep your carrots hydrated. If carrots become dry, peeling can restore some freshness, but does sacrifice some nutritional value since much of a carrot's nutrients reside in the skin. Frozen carrots can keep up to eight months while canned and dried carrots can last a year or more, but do sacrifice some of their rich flavor.
How to eat carrots
Basically, almost any way you want. Carrots are one of the world's most popular vegetables because of their nutritional value and versatility. Alone or combined with savory or sweet ingredients, raw or cooked, carrots add value and taste to any meal, even breakfast. Carrots can be: snacks, appetizers, salads, side dishes, condiments, entrees, and desserts. You can eat them: raw, tossed in salad, juiced, steamed, boiled, pickled, baked, roasted, dried, stir fried, sautéed, microwaved, or grilled.
Like many other vegetables, carrots store their nutrients in the skin or just under it, especially the beta-carotene. A carrot's mineral content also resides close to the skin. A smooth, clean carrot does not need to be peeled. Doing so is a matter of personal preference.
Health conscious individuals may shy away from cooking carrots, thinking raw is the healthiest way to consume this vegetable. However, remember that beta-carotene is fat soluble, requiring a little fat in the meal for the body to better process this nutrient. And some studies suggest that only a small amount of the beta-carotene in carrots is released when eaten raw.
Juicing and cooking carrots softens the cell membrane and allows more absorption of beta carotene. However, cooking can reduce carrots' vitamin C content. So, benefits exist for most ways of preparing carrots. Nutrient values just vary somewhat depending on how carrots are prepared and consumed. While steaming may be the healthiest way to cook this vegetable and preserve desirable nutrients, simply incorporating carrots regularly into one's diet seems to be the most important factor.
How can you eat more carrots?
Since carrots are a nutrition powerhouse, be adventurous and incorporate them in a variety of ways. Their taste is not overpowering, so their mild flavor can creatively enrich a number of foods. Add to breads, biscuits, salads, sauces, gravies, soups, and casseroles. Carrots also add color to beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, stuffing, and pastas.
Here's another interesting idea: Carrot juice can be substituted for some or all liquid in many recipes. Breads and cakes, rice and other grains, glazes, soups, sauces, and even custards benefit from the color, taste, and nutrients. Despite carrots' low glycemic index, their sweet taste may require reducing the sugar in some recipes. Experiment and enjoy!
Munch on a rainbow
The most common carrots in American supermarkets come in bright to paler orange. But don't be afraid to munch on the rainbow of carrots colors. Some health food stores even sell "rainbow packs." These carrots in a host of hues are actually older than our orange varieties which trace their roots back about 400 years.
Written records reveal that yellow and purple carrots date back to at least 900 A.D. in Afghanistan. These records also show that people of different regions consumed different colors: red in India, yellow in northern Europe, and purple in Iran.
Pigmentred, orange, yellow, purple, white, or blackdoesn't appear to affect carrot taste. But research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison implies that nutrients vary depending on color and each color offers its own specific health benefit .
Fun carrot trivia
- International Carrot Day is observed on April 4.
- Holtville, California, calls itself the Carrot Capital of the World. The city recently held its 68th Annual Carrot Festival.
- In Schenectady, New York, Congregation Agudat Achim held their first Carrot Festival to raise funds to pave the synagogue's parking lot. Now, 37 years later, the festival is one of the region's end-of-summer go-to events.
- Temperature and sunlight impacts carrot color. Spring and summer carrots often turn a brighter orange than those grown in fall and winter.
- One white carrot, patented at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was developed to supplement vitamin E intake.
- Carrots were the first vegetable to be canned commercially.
- Carrots are used in baby food and pet products.
- Enough juice for one person requires about five carrots.
- Wild carrots are also known as Queen Anne's Lace.
The World Carrot Museum provides answers to many questions about carrots on their website. For more fun information on carrots see their trivia page. For even more carrot fun, visit the Grimmway Farms website.
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