The Surprising History and Science of the Orange Carrot & Why Carrots Are Orange?

Bunching Carrots, Why Carrots Are Orange?
Bunching Carrots

Carrots might seem like a simple vegetable, but their vibrant orange colour hides a fascinating story – and a surprising secret is hidden in their genes! It answers the simple question, I’m often asked about, Why Carrots Are Orange? The orange carrots we grow today are a relatively recent “invention” (if you count centuries as recent!), that gained popularity in the 18th century but existed centuries before .

The first cultivated carrots, dating back to 10th century Central Asia, weren’t orange. They were a more muted palette of roots in shades of purple, whiter or yellow. And the recent popularity of coloured carrots actually goes back centuries to their origins.

Globe Trotting, Time Traveling, Carrots

Fast forward from the 10th century in Central Asia to the 13th or 14th century in western Europe. Growers stumbled upon a new carrot with a striking orange colour.  It probably came from an accidental hybridisation or maybe a seed seller took a hand in it, we don’t know for sure. Of course this innovation wasn’t just about aesthetics. The vibrant orange stood out in markets, making it a more eye-catching choice for consumers. There’s some debate about the exact location within western Europe, with the Netherlands being a strong contender to celebrate William of Orange, but some sources suggest a more general spread across the region during this period.

Over time, the orange carrot’s popularity soared. Not only did its bright colour grab attention, but its naturally sweet flavour also won over gardeners and chefs alike. By the early 1900s, science even caught up with folk wisdom, recognising the health benefits of orange carrots. And during World War Two we Brits spread a rumour that our superiority in shooting down enemy aircraft was down to wearing carrots. But I’ve told that story before. In fact, I’ve told several versions of the carrot story .. and in their day all were ways to hide a RAF secret.

But here’s the twist to there carrot story. Recent research has revealed the real secret behind their vibrant colour! Scientists have sequenced the genomes of hundreds of carrot varieties and discovered three specific genes that, when switched off in carrots make them orange due to a higher level of alpha and beta-carotene. These are natural pigments called carotenoids, and they’re the reason for the vibrant orange color. Even better, alpha and beta-carotene are converted into vitamin A in our bodies, which is crucial for healthy eyes (so perhaps there is an element of truth in the WWII stories) , a strong immune system, and other vital functions. So, by having those genes turned off, orange carrots are essentially packing a bigger punch of vitamin A.

That’s the answer to Why Carrots Are Orange? So, the next time you dig a plump, orange carrot from the ground, remember its surprising journey from Central Asia to Europe, and the clever trick of its genes! From its humble beginnings the carrot’s story is a testament to both human ingenuity, the power of nature’s colourful palette, and the fascinating world of plant genetics.

External References

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2394820-we-finally-know-what-makes-orange-carrots-orange/

Image Credit: k8-GHRT9j21m2M-unsplash

Tag: Why Carrots Are Orange?

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