Carrots: Classic and Colorful Roots
Carrots are salad bar mainstay, a ubiquitous party tray food, and ranch dressing s soul mate. The story behind these classic root vegetables begins humbly with the white, thin, and bitter wild ancestor. The origins of carrots can be traced back through time across Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia, where wild forebears of carrots originally grew. These wild versions were often used for medicinal purposes, and records indicate the ancient Greeks and Romans utilized carrots for their purported curative attributes. Evidence of the earliest domesticated carrots dates back 5,000 years to regions in the Middle East. However, recent genetic analysis shows that wild carrots in Central Asia are the most closely related to modern domesticated carrots, indicating this area may be the earliest center of origin of the edible version of the carrot.
Early carrot domesticates did not display the familiar orange coloring, but featured purple or yellow skins. The first records of orange-colored carrots appear in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although orange is the most prevalent color of modern carrots, purple, yellow, white, and red carrots are still cultivated today. Though not native to the United States, the wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne s Lace, now grows across North America since being introduced by early colonizers.
Although the carrot greens are edible, the part of the plant we typically consume is the storage root, which grows below ground. Carrots belong to the family Apiaceae, and though they grow underground, they are not in the same family as other familiar underground vegetables like beets, radishes, or potatoes. Celery, parsley, and cilantro, however, are all members of this family and relations of the carrot.
The most recognizable form of a carrot today is the bite-sized baby version. In 1986, BunnyLuv brands began selling the first baby carrots. Tired of seeing unattractive carrots getting overlooked by consumers, farmer Mike Yurosek came up with the idea of whittling carrots down into smaller, more attractive bullet shapes, and the BunnyLuv brand was born. To make a baby carrot, a carrot s top and bottom are chopped off and the remaining segments are washed and polished to create unblemished small versions of whole carrots. The orange-colored carrots we are most familiar with contain large amounts of beta carotene, which our body converts to vitamin A. The popular reminder to eat your carrots stems from this high beta carotene content and the benefits of vitamin A consumption. Orange isn t the only carrot color that has nutritional benefits associated with it. Red carrots are rich in lycopene and purple carrots boast stores of anthocyanins, both antioxidants.
A final observation on carrots is their association with rabbits. Although rabbits willingly consume them, veterinarians and rabbit experts do not recommend allowing pet bunnies to consume too many carrots due to the high concentrations of sugars and starches. From the bitter, white carrot ancestors to the proliferation of a wide variety of colors, to the orange, sweet veggies we know so well today, the carrot conceals an intriguing history hidden behind every crunchy bite.