The Dark Past of Carrots

2 minute read

A Case of Mendelian Monkey Business.

Carrots weren’t always orange. They used to be purple. True story.

400 years ago, before plant breeders got their bright orange idea, carrots were a dark and swarthy bunch.

So why the change? Well, it was for a good cause, I suppose. It was all in honor of a dead prince—William of Orange.

In her ground-breaking book, Eating on the Wild Side, Jo Robinson tells just how the House of Orange inspired this remarkable quirk of history.

Two plant breeders in the Netherlands, stirred by William of Orange’s epic revolt against Spain in the mid-sixteenth century, took it upon themselves to honor the dead monarch. They crossed a yellow mutant carrot from Africa with a local red carrot. And poof! They got a brilliant orange root for their celebration. With one flourish of Mendelian magic, they changed the hue of our most iconic veggie forever. All they lacked, it seemed, was a rabbit to pull out of the hat with it.

Over the next 200 years, “the long orange Dutch carrot" became so popular that it shoved aside all other varieties in the Western world. In most supermarkets today, orange carrots are the only variety available.

You can still find purple carrots easily enough in Egypt, India, Japan, and China. But here in the United States, you will probably have to visit a specialty store to find them. I get my purple carrots from Whole Foods Market.

Now, orange is great. But, I have to tell you, we might have been better off if our carrots had stayed purple. Here’s how Jo Robinson puts it:

Too bad for us that the House of Orange was not called the House of Purple. A fit of patriotism hundreds of years ago gave us the short end of the carrot stick. As is the case with most vegetables, the color of carrots is a good indicator of the amount and kinds of bionutrients they contain. Purple carrots are a concentrated source of anthocyanins, which have more antioxidant activity and potentially more health benefits than the beta-carotene in orange carrots.

Whoops!

I guess it's true what my medical professors always said, "You never know what you're doing until you know what you're undoing." First do no harm.

You never know what you're doing, until you know what you're undoing.

No worries, I guess. Just imagine. Somewhere in an alternative universe, Bugs Bunny is munching on a purple carrot, saying “What’s up Duke?". And the House of Orange is draped in purple robes. Indeed, history is stranger than fiction.

Related post: What 88% of Us Are Missing. Find out how dark plant foods affect your brain.

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