The carrot can trace its ancestry back thousands of years, originally having been cultivated in central Asian and Middle Eastern countries, along with parts of Europe. These original carrots looked different from those that we are accustomed to today, featuring red, purple, and yellow coloring rather than the bright orange that we've become accustomed to currently. Carrots became widely cultivated in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries and were first brought over to North America during this same general time period. Carrots belong to the Umbelliferae family. As such, carrots are related to parsnips, fennel, parsley, anise, caraway, cumin and dill. Carrots can be as small as two inches or as long as three feet, ranging in diameter from one-half of an inch to over two inches. Carrot roots have crunchy texture and a sweet and minty aromatic taste. Even though consumers are most familiar with carrots as root vegetables bright orange in color, an amazing variety of colors are found worldwide for this vegetable : Orange, Purples, Yellow, White, Carrots. All of these color varieties, however, still belong to the same genus and species of plant. Although carrots are available throughout the year, locally grown carrots are in season in the spring and fall when they are the freshest and most flavorful.
Carrots are perhaps best known for their beta-carotene content. The nutrient beta-carotene was actually named after the carrot! While they can be an outstanding source of this phytonutrient, carrots actually contain a fascinating combination of phytonutrients, including other carotenoids (especially alpha-carotene and lutein); hydroxycinnamic acids (including caffeic, coumaric, ferulic); anthocyanins (in the case of purple and red carrots); and polyacetylenes. Carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids). In addition, they are a very good source of biotin, vitamin K, dietary fiber, molybdenum, potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. They are a good source of manganese, niacin, vitamin B1, panthothenic acid, phosphorus, folate, copper, vitamin E, and vitamin B2. Another advantage: the carrot is low in calories (33 kcal/100g) and contrary to what has been said for many years, its glycemic index is low: it is 16 when raw and 47 when cooked.
All varieties of carrots contain valuable amounts of antioxidant nutrients. Included here are traditional antioxidants like vitamin C, as well as phytonutrient antioxidants like beta-carotene. The list of carrot phytonutrient antioxidants is by no means limited to beta-carotene, however. This list includes: Carotenoids (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein), Hydroxycinnamic acids (caffeic acid, coumaric acid, ferulic acid, Anthocyanindins (cyanidins, malvidins).
Given their antioxidant richness, it's not surprising to find numerous research studies documenting the cardiovascular benefits of carrots. Our cardiovascular system needs constant protection from antioxidant damage. This is particularly true of our arteries, which are responsible for carrying highly oxygenated blood. A recent study from the Netherlands, in which participants were followed for a period of 10 years, has given us some fascinating new information about carrots and our risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). In this study, intake of fruits and vegetables was categorized by color. The researchers focused on four color categories: green, orange/yellow, red/purple, and white. Out of these four categories, orange/yellow (and in particular, foods with deeper shades of orange and yellow) was determined to be the most protective against CVD. Within this dark orange/yellow food group, carrots were determined to be the single most risk-reducing food. Participants who had the least carrot intake had the least amount of CVD risk reduction, even though they still received risk-reducing benefits from their carrot intake. However, participants who ate at least 25 more grams of carrots (with 25 grams being less than one-quarter of a cup) had a significantly lower risk of CVD. And the groups of participants who ate 50 - or 75 - grams more had an even more greatly reduced risk of CVD!
While you might expect to find a large number of human research studies documenting the benefits of carrot intake for eye health, there are relatively few studies in this area. Most studies about carotenoids and eye health have focused on carotenoid levels in the bloodstream and the activities of the carotenoids themselves, rather than the food origins of carotenoids (like carrots). Still, smaller scale human studies showed clear benefits of carrot intake for eye health. For example, researchers at the Jules Stein Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles determined that women who consume carrots at least twice per week - in comparison to women who consume carrots less than once per week - have significantly lower rates of glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve often associated with excessive pressure inside the eye).
How to select and store
Carrot roots should be firm, smooth, relatively straight and bright in color. The deeper the orange-color, the more beta-carotene is present in the carrot. Avoid carrots that are excessively cracked or forked as well as those that are limp or rubbery. If the green tops are attached, they should be brightly colored, feathery and not wilted. Since the sugars are concentrated in the carrots' core, generally those with larger diameters will have a larger core and therefore be sweeter. Carrots are hardy vegetables that will keep longer than many others if stored properly. The trick to preserving the freshness of carrot roots is to minimize the amount of moisture they lose. To do this, make sure to store them in the coolest part of the refrigerator in a plastic bag or wrapped in a paper towel, which will reduce the amount of condensation that is able to form.
Tips for preparing and cooking
Wash carrot roots and gently scrub them with a vegetable brush right before eating. Unless the carrots are old, thick or not grown organically, it is not necessary to peel them. If they are not organically grown, peel them. If the stem end is green, it should be cut away as it will be bitter. Depending upon the recipe or your personal preference, carrots can be left whole or julienned, grated, shredded or sliced into sticks or rounds. Carrots are delicious eaten raw or cooked. While heating can often damage some of the delicate phytonutrients in vegetables, the beta-carotene as found in carrots has been shown to become more bioavailable through well-timed steaming . Still, be careful not to overcook carrots if you want to your carrots to retain their maximum flavor and strong overall nutritional value.