Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

More Colors For Carrots

by John Navazio

Instead of basic orange, imagine dressing up your favorite entrees with purple, red, yellow, and even white carrots. These colorful varieties will not only enhance your cooking visually, but will contribute unique, spicy flavors to your dishes from culinary traditions around the world.

The ubiquitous orange carrot is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was first documented in Dutch paintings in the 1600s. But the first cultivated carrots, which originated in Afghanistan around a.d. 900, were purple. And then in the 10th century, yellow carrots were documented in the Middle East. These early purple and yellow carrots were used for human consumption as well as for animal fodder. By the 14th century, carrots had reached Europe and China. Europeans, preferring the yellow types for their tables, began selecting for culinary attributes such as flavor, texture, and storability. By the 1600s, white and orange carrots emerged on the scene, the latter being prized for the human diet, probably because of its rich color. Over the next 200 years, orange became the carrot color of choice.

Since orange carrots first became popular, they've received most of plant breeders' attention when it comes to improving their flavor, texture, and nutritional value, according to Dr. Phil Simon, a carrot breeder with the USDA in Madison, Wisconsin. Breeding hasn't been easy, because carrots are probably the most complex-flavored vegetable we eat. More than a hundred known volatile flavor compounds, mostly terpenoids, commonly occur in carrots. The type, quantity, and relative amount of these terpenoids can greatly affect carrot flavor, sometimes making them taste piney, soapy, bitter, or harsh. However, without terpenoids, carrots would lack their characteristic aromatic flavor. Most modern orange varieties have the proper balance between sugars and terpenoids that imparts a true carrot flavor and sweetness without any off-flavors.

Conversely, very little breeding has been done to improve the flavor of nonorange carrots, so these older varieties can have a virtual potluck of tastes. The flavor can be spicy or robust. These carrots taste best cooked, because cooking mellows any harsh flavors.

Although modern orange carrots have been bred for increasingly higher levels of beta carotene (precursor to vitamin A), other colored carrots have health benefits, too. They contain important healthful phytonutrients that can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a number of other chronic illnesses. We've chosen the best of the colorful carrot varieties to describe here.

Passionate Purples

The most visually exciting of these newly available carrot colors is purple. Shades can range from dark violet to reddish purple. The pigment responsible for these beautiful hues is anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant that has shown promise in reducing certain forms of cardiovascular disease and cancer. One of the best purple carrot varieties is 'Dragon'. "This early-maturing (65 days) Kuroda-type carrot has a spicy, sweet flavor that does not get harsh in hot weather," says John Schneeberger of Garden City Seeds in Hamilton, Montana.

The most exciting feature of 'Dragon' is that, when sliced raw, it reveals orange, orange-and-yellow, or pure bright yellow interiors in brilliant contrast to its purple exterior. The only drawback is that this relatively thin purple layer will bleed when cooked, although the interior orange and yellow pigments are stable.

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