Part 1: Fake News

Fact: Carrots aren’t orange.

They will help you see in the dark, but they’re still pulling the wool over your eyes – carrots are naturally purple, white or yellow, not orange.

Modern day carrots are orange because they contain very high levels of beta-carotene – the same molecule that makes them so good for you. Beta-carotene absorbs blue light and reflects reddish light, meaning we see carrots in their familiar orange. It’s also a source of vitamin A which is important for healthy eyes, hence why carrots help you ‘see in the dark’.

However, 1,000 years ago nutritionally-lacking muddy white or purple carrots were standard table fare, until farmers began domesticating them in Afghanistan. Genetic analysis has revealed that by picking the best carrots for next year’s crop, these farmers slowly turned carrots yellow as they began to contain more beta-carotene (a process called selective breeding). Hundreds of years later in Europe, more selective breeding increased the amount of beta-carotene further to create the deep orange carrot we know and love today. As put by carrot researcher Philipp Simon:

“There’s no good biological reason for carrots to be orange except one… and it’s that people have been diddling around with carrots for 1,000 years.”

But why did ancient farmers choose the yellow or orange carrots as the ‘best’ ones to grow the next year? It’s unlikely that they realised they were getting superhuman night-vision: instead, historians think it was because the pigment in purple carrots dissolves in water, staining pots and teeth when they cooked them. The pigment in orange carrots is fat soluble, so it doesn’t drain out when you cook them, so maybe our ancestors were just very house proud.

Rumour has an alternative explanation: that the orange carrot was created specifically for the Dutch royal family (i.e. ‘The House of Orange’). Whilst it is true that the orange carrot probably did originate in the Netherlands and that the Dutch did go a little carrot-mad by adopting it as their national vegetable (you can see carrots in almost every 16th century Dutch painting), like most conspiracy theories this one is flawed by timing: the orange carrot was around long before Dutch royalist nationalism. So have no fear – you can enjoy your orange carrots without eating up 16th century propaganda.

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under Creative Commons license

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