Not only are carrots one of the first solid foods that we eat as infants, they are also one of the oldest and most popular vegetables in the world. They are both crunchy and sweet, which makes them a healthy snack that has been shown to fight cancer, lower the risk of heart attack, and of course (as we were all told as children), improve your eyesight. Whether eaten raw or cooked, whole or in juice form, carrots high beta-carotene and fiber content make them a superfood that provides numerous benefits for health.
What Are Carrots?
Carrots are root vegetables. They got their name from the Greek word “karoton”, which refers to anything that is shaped like a horn. Interestingly, after the carrot was discovered to be one of the world’s best sources of a naturally-occurring pigment that can be converted to active Vitamin A, those pigments were named “carotenoids” in honor of their prime vegetable source. There are three carotenoids – alpha, beta and gamma carotene.
The pigments found in carrots have presented themselves in a variety of different colors. Though orange is the most common carrot color, the vegetable also comes in other hues, including:
- Purple Carrots
- Yellow Carrots
- White Carrots
- Red Carrots
Carrots are grown all over the world, with almost half of the world’s production coming from China. Other major producers include Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation and the United States.
1. Carrots Are a Valuable Source of Beta-Carotene and Other Important Nutrients
There’s no question that the star nutrient in carrots comes from the beta carotene that gives it its pigment, but that is by no means the only one. Carrots contain high levels of other antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, as well as Vitamin B and a special kind of fiber called calcium pectate that has been shown to lower cholesterol. They’re an excellent source of minerals, including potassium copper and magnesium. And though the root is what is most frequently eaten, carrot greens are also edible and they are very high in vitamin K. One cup of chopped raw carrot represents a remarkable percentage of our recommended daily value of many nutrients, including:
Calories – 52
Fiber – 3.6 g (14%)
Protein – 1.2 g
Vitamin A – 21383 IU (428%)
Vitamin K – 16.9 mcg (21%)
Vitamin C – 7.6 mg (13%)
Potassium – 410 mg (12%)
Vitamin B6 – 0.2 mg (9%)
Manganese – 0.2 mg (9%)
Thiamine – 0.1 mg (6%)
Niacin – 1.3 mg (6%)
Folate – 24.3 mcg (6%)
Vitamin E – 0.8 mg (4%)
Calcium – 42.2 mg (4%)
Magnesium – 15.4 mg (4%)
Phosphorus – 44.8 mg (4%)
Riboflavin – 0.1 mg (4%)
Pantothenic Acid – 0.3 mg (3%)
Copper – 0.1 mg (3%)
Iron – 0.4 mg (2%)
Zinc – 0.3 mg (2%)
Carrots are a low-calorie food that is loaded with important nutrients. They are a rich source of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
2. The Fiber in Carrots Can Help to Lower Cholesterol
According to the USDA, eating just two carrots every day can significantly lower your cholesterol – one study showed that they can drop HDL levels by 10 to 20%. This is because carrots are rich in a soluble fiber called calcium pectate. Studies have shown that this type of fiber binds with bile acids and takes them out of the body. Because we need bile acids to digest fat, the body has to make more, and does so by consuming stored cholesterol. A group of study participants who were asked to eat carrots every day for three weeks not only saw their cholesterol drop after the study was over, but their levels were still low three weeks later.
Bottom Line: The pectin found in carrots is a special kind of fiber that has been shown to dramatically lower blood cholesterol levels.
3. Carrots May Help Reduce Cancer Risk
Carrots have a specialized protective component called a polyacetylene which keeps fungus and bacteria away. Scientists are taking a close look at these compounds, as they may also be able to kill cancer cells. So far studies have only been done on animals, but they have shown a strong impact on colorectal and gastric cancers and on lymphocytic leukemia. Carrots also contain a compound called falcarinol which has reduced tumors in lab animals by 33%.
Bottom Line: Recent studies are pointing to carrots as a powerful cancer preventative.
4. Carrots Are Very Good for Your Vision
How many of us were told as kids that carrots are good for our eyes, and asked, “You’ve never seen a rabbit wearing glasses, have you?” Unlike many of the old wives’ tales that people believed, this one is actually true. Though carrots can’t fix eye problems that already exist, they can definitely head off future problems, and especially those that are caused by a Vitamin A deficiency. All that beta-carotene that’s found in carrots gets converted to Vitamin A. Beyond that, eating carrots has been linked to a reduced risk of glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts, probably because of a phytonutrient called geranyl acetate that’s found in the vegetable.
Bottom Line: In addition to other nutrients, the beta carotene that gives carrots their orange color also protects your vision.
5. Carrots Are Brain Food
Studies have shown that eating carrots may stave off the inflammation in the brain that has been linked to memory loss, including degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This may be due to a compound called luteolin that is found in carrots. Studies have shown that lab animals fed a diet rich in luteolin did better on learning and memory tests than those that didn’t have the special diet. The study also showed that the inflammation in those animals’ brains was similar to that of much younger animals.
Bottom Line: Adding a tiny amount of peppermint oil to your workout water can help improve your endurance and your performance.
6. Carrots Are Linked to Better Bone Health
Carrots have a small amount of calcium, the mineral most associated with strong bones. But it turns out that beta-carotene may be an even more important nutrient when it comes to holding on to bone mass. A recent study showed that more we eat foods that are rich in beta-carotene, the greater our bone mass. Just one serving per day of a yellow or green vegetable leads to healthier bone density, while less than one serving per day is linked to bone-related health problems.
Bottom Line: Adding beta-carotene-rich carrots to your diet each day makes a big difference in your bone strength.
7. Carrots Are Good for Your Heart Health
A 10-year-long Dutch study showed that carrots are the single most risk-reducing vegetable when it comes to protecting against heart disease. The study showed that the people who ate the most carrots cut their risk of heart disease by 32%! Carrots have three essential nutrients that have been proven to help your heart health. The beta-carotene that gives them their deep orange color turns to Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A prevents thickening of the walls of the heart and fights the damage caused by stress. Vitamin K activates a protein that controls blood clots, while Vitamin C lowers the risk of developing coronary heart disease. The best way to eat carrots for heart health is to cook them with a little healthy fat such as a nut oil to help the body absorb the vitamins.
Bottom Line: Carrots contain may different types of antioxidants that work together to provide real benefits for heart health.
What You Need to Know About Buying and Cooking Carrots
Different types of carrots have different nutrients. They all have antioxidants and beta-carotene, but the ones that are red or purple have a higher level of anthocyanin. When you shop for carrots, look for them to be deep orange in color, as the richer the hue, the more beta-carotene they have. The bigger the width at the carrot’s stem end, the sweeter they will taste. Carrots will stay fresh in your refrigerator for about two weeks if they are kept cool and protected from losing their moisture. If you buy them with their green tops, remove the greens before putting them in the refrigerator – otherwise they pull moisture from the carrot and make them soft. You can keep the greens for a short time by wrapping them in a damp paper towel, then use them for a Vitamin K rich addition to salads or soups.
Carrots should always be washed with a vegetable brush, though if they are organic they do not need to be peeled. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Though many vegetables lose their nutrients when cooked, carrots are able to retain their nutritional value as long as they are not overcooked.