Contrary to popular belief, carrots cannot give you super-human vision. An urban legend about the orange-colored taproot got started in World War II, when the British success at gunning down Nazi bombers was attributed to the pilots' consumption of carrots. Actually, their covert weapon was radar, not the favored vegetable of Bugs Bunny, but the carrot rumor served its purpose in protecting national security secrets. Nevertheless, the story touched off a carrot craze among the public.
Chockful of Carotene and More
Diets rich in carotene are thought to reduce the risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases and smoking-related conditions. In a study of elderly individuals, those who ate at least one serving of carrots or squash per day reduced their rate of heart attack by 60 percent. A Harvard study showed that those who eat five carrots a week are less likely to suffer a stroke than those who eat one per month. High carotenoid intake has been associated with decreases in the incidences of breast, bladder, cervical, prostate and colon cancer, among others. Smoking cigarettes produces a vitamin A deficiency; consuming beta carotene-rich foods like carrots can help ward off associated conditions like emphysema.
Though carotene gets all the attention, carrots' diverse benefits cannot be attributed just to this one compound. Scientists have tried to isolate carrots' power in a pill; however, synthetic vitamin A supplements don't produce the same effects as consuming carrots themselves and can actually be toxic. Several compounds in the carrot work may work together to promote health. The phytonutrient falcrinol, for example, is a natural fungicide that plays a part in protecting against colon cancer. Carotene may also be involved in countering nutrient deficiencies in smokers.
First cultivated in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, the earliest carrots were not orange at all. They were typically purple or yellow. It wasn't until the 1800s in Europe that the sweet orange carrot was developed and spread the world over during colonial times. Now scientists are returning to the rainbow hues of the common carrot's ancestors to capture additional nutritional benefits. Researchers at the Agricultural Research Service are breeding yellow, dark orange, bright red and purple carrots in an effort to get the nation eating more carrots and a wider array of antioxidants. Yellow carrots contain xanthophylls, which also boost eye health; red carrots, like tomatoes, contain the cancer-fighter lycopene; and purple carrots have similar anthocyanins as eggplant.
Beyond these multihued antioxidants, carrots of any color pack a fiber punch, which promotes healthy digestion and may reduce cholesterol. The USDA reports that eating two carrots per day can lower cholesterol by 20 percent due to soluble fiber called calcium pectate. The combination of fiber and carotenoids also guards against insulin resistance and high blood sugar, which can be precursors to diabetes. Cooking, in fact, increases the benefits of orange carrots, since heat frees the beta carotene from the fiber.
Enjoy in Moderation
Whether shredded into sweet cakes and puddings or sautéed in silky butter, carrots can certainly inspire passion. Just don't get too overzealous with your carrots: excessive consumption of carotene-rich foods can leave your palms or other parts of your skin with an orange cast, a condition called cartoderma. This results because beta carotene is stored in the skin until it's needed by the liver. Two carrots a day is ample for most people's dietary needs. With all of the health incentives, what more of a carrot do you need?