Carrots, a Brief History

14 Aug 2013 07.42 am by K. Daniel

Carrots are one of the plant products we are often encouraged to eat. Early on growing up the media was awash with claims and statements on the benefits of eating more produce, and carrots were no exception.

I remember stories on people regaining lost or diminished vision and improvement on overall eye and skin health. One of the most memorable ones was a man who claimed that consuming carrot juice everyday improved his myopia (short sightedness). On the flipside, an equally memorable (albeit hilarious) claim involves change, where the skin of an individual develops a yellowish-orange hue. Yes, oompa loompas came to my mind too.

As we progress to assess produce, one part of it involves differing fact from fiction, what is true from what is not, and as such, are the claims mentioned above based on science? Do carrots give you superhuman vision? And does it grant you skin changing abilities?

First, let's explore a bit of history concerning carrots. When we think of carrots, we tend to automatically think of a long, orange root vegetable with green tops. Much like those shown in Warner Bros. cartoons involving a certain mischievous bunny and his eponymous catchphrase, "what's up doc?". However this was not always the case. Carrots were never always orange.

Originally, by early 16th century carrots were grown in a wide variety of colours including purple and red in France as well as yellow and white in England. The orange variety commonly seen today is a result of Dutch propagation in the 16th century.   It is often said that this variety was invented in honour of William of Orange (a.k.a. William III), however these claims are said to be an unlikely tale, with mutant/hybrid illustrations dating back to 512 AD showing orange coloration. In fact an 1875 report by Dr Fernie states that the Dutch government had no love for the house of orange, and went as far as to prohibit the sales of carrots and oranges due to their aristocratic colours. What is more plausible is that Dutch horticulturist found the mutation and developed it further through selective breeding and hybridisation according to a 1983 article in Israel Journal of Botany.

The orange coloration of carrots is also due to the presence of β-carotene, which is metabolized into vitamin A in humans. Vitamin A has been widely credited to have various health benefits and properties, including improving eye health. As such, carrots have been often associated with improved vision. But does it really?

Associations between carrot consumption and eye health can be traced back to the 1940s, World War II.  Between 1939 and 1945, foods were of short supply due to the war, with the exception of a few root vegetables such as carrots which were grown in abundance. As such a campaign titled Dig for Victory, in addition to mascots such as Dr Carrot and Potato Pete   were employed by the British Ministry of Agriculture to encourage consumption. The saying "carrots help you see in the dark" was another subsequent ruse developed to make use of the surplus, resulting in increased public consumption in preparation for mandatory blackouts. It also aided in hiding the fact that the Royal Air Force (RAF) were using radar technology for successive night raids, crediting it instead to a specialized "secret diet".

And perhaps the amount of carrots eaten at the time inspired Roald Dahl to create characters in his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As it turns out, eating large amounts of carrots results in a condition named carotenemia, with the most notable symptom being yellowing of the skin. This skin condition was found to be especially prevalent in vegetarians and infants, and is due to the carotenoids (fat soluble chemical compounds) present in carrots and other foods such as tomatoes, alfalfa, and green leafy vegetables, which can't be metabolized by the liver if consumed in massive quantities. The excess is then subsequently deposited in the outermost layer of the skin, especially in areas with increased sweating such as the palms, soles, nose, and mouth.

Of course to achieve this, continuously large quantities of produce need to be consumed, and symptoms begin to show between 4 and 7 weeks. The condition itself is completely harmless and reverses itself as carotenoid levels decrease. Unless you're naturally orange.




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