Carrot in the English lexicon has become a synonym for bright, vibrant orange. But that wasn't always the case. Back a few millennia, calling someone a "carrot top" might have conjured more of a dark Goth image. That's because the original carrots were not at all orange, but purple.
The second most popular vegetable after the potato, carrots are related to parsnips, fennel caraway, cumin and dill. There are over 100 different varieties that vary in size from as small as two inches or as long as three feet, and ranging in diameter from a half inch to over two inches.
Carrots originated as a wild root 5,000 years ago in Afghanistan where they were also first cultivated prior to 900 A.D. The original crops were purple or yellow only. The purple carrot spread into the Mediterranean region in the 10th century and together with the yellow variety later spread into Europe. Orange carrots are thought to be mutations of yellow forms, and were actually developed in the Netherlands. The orange variety made its way to North America in the 17th century with English settlers.
In general, orange carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, compounds that are converted to vitamin A in the body. They also contain phytochemicals that have antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and other health enhancing properties.
Not only do purple carrots contain all of the phytochemicals found in orange carrots, they also contain anthocyanins, the same antioxidant compounds that are responsible for the red, blue and purple colors of fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanins also have been shown to help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, as well as to maintain urinary tract health and provide protection against cancer, memory loss and abdominal obesity.
Anthocyanins are so power that a recent study from Harvard University found that young and middle-age women who ate high levels of anthocyanins had a 32% reduced risk for heart attack compared to women eating lower levels. The researchers concluded that it wasn't just eating more fruits and vegetables that conferred the benefit but eating more anthocyanin-rich foods like blueberries, strawberries, eggplants, blackberries and blackcurrants. Add purple carrots to that list.
Purple carrots may be almost completely purple or may have a white, yellow or orange core, making them a colorful addition to many dishes. They are slightly sweeter and softer than the traditional orange variety. You can even buy purple carrot juice for your children (or yourself for that matter).
Try some if you get the chance, but don't go overboard. You know how some people turn orange from eating orange carrots? It raises an unanswered question about the purple variety.