Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing your Onions

Not only for bunnies … this month we look at the humble carrot.

 

24-01You were probably told to "eat your carrots" by your parents and you probably tell your kids the same thing. And when asked why, you explain, "Because they're good for you!" There’s even the old saying that carrots give you curly hair, but have you ever seen a curly-haired bunny? Mind you, I eat a lot of carrots and I have curly hair, so who knows! We’ve also been told that carrots help you see in the dark – and this may have a little truth in it, but more of that later.

      It’s believed that the carrot was first cultivated in the area now known as Afghanistan, thousands of years ago, as a small forked purple or yellow root with a woody and bitter flavour, nothing like the carrot we know today. Purple, red, yellow and white carrots were cultivated long before the appearance of the now popular orange carrot, which was developed by Dutch growers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The modern day carrot has been bred to be sweet, crunchy and aromatic. However, in its early usage, carrots were grown for their aromatic leaves and seeds, not their roots, and carrot seeds have been found in Switzerland and Southern Germany dating to 2,000–3,000 BC. Some relatives of the carrot are still grown for their leaves and seeds, such as parsley, fennel, dill and cumin.

      The domestic carrot has been selectively bred for its greatly enlarged, and more palatable taproot. Baby carrots are often more tender, but have less flavour because of their immaturity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that world production of carrots and turnips (these plants are combined for reporting purposes) for the calendar year 2011, was almost 36 million tonnes – that’s enough to keep a few generations of Easter bunnies happy! Almost half of these were grown in China. Carrots are widely used in many cuisines, either raw in salads, as a cooked vegetable side dish, or in soups and stews.

      But colour and crunch aside, it’s the nutritional benefits of carrots that got our parents shoving them down our throats. One serving size of carrots provides 25 calories, six grams of carbohydrates, three grams of sugars and one of protein. Carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A, providing 210% of the average adult's needs for the day. They also provide 6% of vitamin C needs, 2% of calcium needs and 2% of iron needs per serving. In addition, carrots contain fibre, vitamin K, potassium, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, vitamin E and zinc. (One medium carrot or half a cup of chopped carrots is considered a serving size.)

     It’s the antioxidant beta-carotene that gives carrots their bright orange colour. Beta-carotene is absorbed in the intestine and converted into vitamin A during digestion. But as they say, too much of a good thing can be bad from you, and the same goes for eating too many carrots. Why you ask? What can eating too many carrots do to you… give you bunny teeth? Well no. But excessive consumption of carotene-rich foods may lead to a condition called ‘carotoderma’, in which the palms or other areas develop a yellow or orange hue – not unlike a bad spray tan. This yellowing of the skin is presumably related to carotenemia (excessive levels of carotene in the blood), and the health impact of this has not yet been fully researched. Eating or juicing high amounts of foods rich in carotene, like carrots, may over tax the body's ability to convert these foods to vitamin A, and so extra carotene is stored, usually in the palms, soles or behind the ears. If the cause of the carotenemia is eating excessively high amounts of foods like carrots, the condition will usually disappear after reducing consumption.

      Right, back to the night vision issue – can carrots really give you superhero night vision powers? Well, perhaps this was again a case of parents exaggerating the truth somewhat. But, a vitamin A deficiency causes the outer segments of the eyes’ photoreceptors to deteriorate, damaging normal vision. Correcting vitamin A deficiencies with foods high in beta-carotene will restore vision. Studies have shown that it is unlikely that most people will experience any significant positive changes in their vision from eating carrots unless they have an existing vitamin A deficiency, which is common in developing countries. But the benefits to vision go further than this, and researchers at the Jules Stein Institute at the University of California in 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).

       So where did all the hype surrounding carrots and vision come from? Well, apparently, during World War Two, the British Royal Air Force started an advertising campaign claiming that the secret to their fighter pilots’ clear, sharp vision was carrots. Realistically, the fighter pilots’ accuracy was due to a new radar system the British wanted to keep secret from the Germans, but the rumour spread and remains popular today.

         Carrot roots should be firm, smooth, relatively straight and bright in colour. The deeper the orange-colour, 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 coloured, feathery and not wilted. Since the sugars are concentrated in the core, generally those with larger cores will 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 minimise the amount of moisture they lose. To do this, it’s best to store them in the coolest part of the fridge in a plastic bag or wrapped in a paper towel, which will reduce the amount of condensation that forms, keeping them fresh for about two weeks. The valuable beta-carotene is well retained if stored properly. Something you might not have known is that carrots should be stored away from apples, pears, potatoes and other fruit and vegetables that produce ethylene gas, since it will cause them to become bitter.

         So it seems our parents were right after all, and carrots are, indeed, good for us. So grate some into your salad, chop some into your soup, or just munch on a crunchy one straight from the fridge for a healthy snack.

         

Rosanne Turner


 


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