Trivia 004: A carrot a day

So this week I finally visited the optometrist for the first time in a while. Got an updated prescription, and was happy to find that my eyes haven’t changed too much. I mean, they’re already pretty bad to begin with. Maybe it’s because I didn’t eat enough carrots as a kid?

I’m sure that many of my readers have heard the idea that carrots are good for your eyes. This idea was pushed by the U.K. Ministry of Food during World War II, as a way of explaining how the Royal Air Force was doing such a good job shooting down German bombers. In reality, the pilots’ eyesight was augmented more by their radar screens than any vegetables. However, this convenient excuse helped parents convince their children to eat more vegetables during the wartime rationing.

That’s not to say that carrots aren’t beneficial to your eyesight, though! Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which the body metabolizes into Vitamin A. This vitamin is crucial to eyesight, as it combines with other proteins to form the light-absorbing molecules which allow you to see. Beta-carotene itself is a reddish pigment, which gives carrots their distinctive color. This is also what colors pumpkins, apricots, and nectarines.

On that note, did you know that carrots weren’t always orange? There are in fact six different main colors of carrots: purple, black, white, yellow, red, and orange. These all came from the carrot’s common ancestor, the wild carrot (Daucus carota). About 1,100 years ago in Afghanistan, early yellow cultivars appeared. Then, about five hundred years ago, farmers in Europe started producing orange carrots. Meanwhile, Chinese farmers developed orange carrots independently from previous red and purple varieties. Purple carrots have large amounts of anthocyanine, which gives them a deeper red shade (this pigment also turns leaves red in the fall). One of the main driving forces behind this orangicization of carrots is possibly because anthocyanine is water soluble, whereas beta-carotene is fat soluble. This means that if you cook with purple carrots, they can end up making your cooking instruments purple as well. And if you cook it in water, it can lend the water a muddy color – not very appetizing!

And although some people think that the orange carrot was bred in honor of the famous William of Orange, there does not seem to be any evidence backing this up. The Dutch may have jumped on the trend and “dedicated” the vegetable to the royal family, but it was most likely developed long before that.

Getting back to the nutrition, although carrots have beta-carotene, they’re not as good for your eyes as some other foods. The human body is relatively inefficient at converting beta-carotene into Vitamin A, likely because it can be toxic in large doses. Some other alternatives for eye-enhancing foods are:

  • Leafy greens, especially kale and spinach. These foods also contain beta-carotene, but are green because the chlorophyll covers up the orange pigments. They can also provide lots of other essential vitamins and minerals, like iron. Have a salad!
  • Cold-water fish, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. These can help reduce your risk of macular degeneration and glaucoma. Go out for sushi!
  • Citrus fruits, as many know, are packed with Vitamin C. Studies show that Vitamin C can lower your risk of cataracts. Drink some orange juice!

Now, as a home cook, I don’t think I recommend having all three at the same time. Personally, I really love to eat carrots in stew. They also make great afternoon snacks!

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