Food as Medicine: Carrot (Daucus carota, Apiaceae)

History and Traditional Use

Range and Habitat

Ubiquitous at any supermarket, the common root vegetable carrot (Daucus carota, subsp. sativus) is a biennial plant that is an excellent source of vitamin A (one cup contains approximately 600% of the recommended daily value) and fiber.1 Indigenous to Europe as well as parts of Asia and northern Africa, carrots now are cultivated commonly in a wide range of environments as they can withstand frosts.2 The colorful varieties of carrots, as well as their hardiness, make them popular with home gardeners.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Favored for their sweet flavor and versatility, carrots not only supply an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, but also contain carotenoids such as alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopene, and the flavonoid quercetin. Though the orange carrot is the most well known in modern times, carrots appear in a number of colors including white, yellow, red, and purple.3 In fact, purple was the prevailing color for carrots until about four hundred years ago, when popular theory claims that the unusual orange variety was cultivated in Holland as a sign of Dutch nationalism to honor William of Orange. The exact reason why the orange cultivar became the dominant variety is unknown, though genetic evidence suggests that orange carrots developed from yellow ones.4

The different colors of carrots reveal their various concentrations of phytochemicals.5 Carotenoids give yellow, orange, and red carrots their colors, while anthocyanins produce the deep purple variety. Orange carrots contain high quantities of beta-carotene. Yellow carrots contain low quantities of beta-carotene, but higher levels of lutein, which may protect from age-related macular degeneration and be beneficial for eyesight. Red carrots contain lycopene — a potent antioxidant with potential anti-cancer activity — in concentrations similar to that of tomatoes. Red carrots also contain moderate levels of alpha- and beta-carotene and lutein. Purple carrots contain high levels of anthocyanins, antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective properties. The white variety has low levels of these phytochemicals but contains high levels of potassium.

Historical Uses

The record of the use of carrots in herbalism dates back to the 10th century, with mentions in the Old English Herbarium and the Leech Book of Bald indicating the use of the root as an emmenagogue as well as a treatment for smallpox and cough.6 Around the world, both root and seed have documented historical uses, typically to promote menstruation or as a diuretic. A different species, the wild American carrot (D. pulsillus), has an ethnobotanical history among many American native tribes as a remedy for colds, fevers, itching, and snake bites.7

Modern Research

Current research suggests that carrots may possess anti-cancer properties,8-10 as well as benefits for people with high blood pressure11 and cardiovascular disease.12 Beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A and is a powerful antioxidant, protecting the body from free radicals and maintaining healthy skin and eyes.13

Consuming large amounts of beta-carotene, especially from carrots, can result in a harmless side effect called carotenemia, which temporarily yellows the skin.13 Infants, whose commercial foods often contain carrot puree as an added ingredient, are most likely to get carotenemia. The yellowing effect subsides as the body processes the excess beta-carotene.

Carrots can be enjoyed cooked or raw, as they retain their nutrients during the cooking process.14 Their sweetness adds to their versatility and supports their use in both sweet and savory dishes. A sweet-and-spicy pickle, for example, enhances the carrot’s natural flavor and a pleasing crunch.


Nutrient Profile

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 cup raw carrots)

52 calories
1.26 g protein
12 g carbohydrates
0.23 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 cup raw carrots)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin A: 34,317 IU (~686% DV)
Vitamin K: 16.1 mcg (20% DV)

Very good source of:

Vitamin C: 11.4 mg (18% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 3.7 g (14.6% DV)
Potassium: 394 mg (11.3% DV)

Good source of:

Vitamin B6: 0.2 mg (9% DV)
Manganese: 0.2 mg (8.5% DV)
Molybdenum: 6.1 mcg (8.1% DV)
Thiamin: 0.1 mg (8.0% DV)
Niacin: 1.1 mg (5.6% DV)
Phosphorus: 53.7 mg (5.4% DV)
Magnesium: 18.3 mg (4.6% DV)
Folate: 17.1 mcg (4.3% DV)

DV = Daily Value, as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.


Recipe: Spicy Pickled Carrots

Adapted from Alton Brown15

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. baby carrots
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • 2 dried red chilies

Directions:

  1. Place carrots and garlic in a 1-quart, spring-top glass jar.

  2. In a non-reactive

    sauce pan

    , bring the water, sugar, cider vinegar, mustard seeds, salt, and dried chili flakes to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Boil for 4 minutes.

  3. Slowly pour the pickling liquid into the jar, covering the carrots and garlic completely. Submerge the

    chilies

    in the jar and cool before sealing.

  4. Refrigerate for two days (for a milder pickle) or a week (for a spicier pickle). These will get hotter the longer they are kept.

References

  1. Basic Report: 11124, Carrots, raw. US Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2014.
  2. Taxon: Daucus carota L. Germplasm Resources Information Network – (GRIN) [Online Database]. National Germplasm Resources Laboratory. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2014.
  3. History of the Carrot Part Three: From Medicine to Food – A.D. 200 to 1500. World Carrot Museum website. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2014.
  4. History of the Carrot Part Five: The Road to Domestication and the Colour Orange. World Carrot Museum website. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2014.
  5. Arscott SA, Tarnumihardjo SA. Carrots of many colors provide basic nutrition and bioavailable phytochemicals acting as a functional food. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. March 2010;9(2):223-239. Available here. Accessed December 3, 2014.
  6. What the Ancient Herbalists Said about Carrots. World Carrot Museum website. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2014.
  7. Moerman DE. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1998.
  8. Bhanot A, Sharma R, Noolvi M. Natural sources as potential anti-cancer agents: A review. International Journal of Phytomedicine [serial online]. April 2011;3(1):9-26.
  9. Aggarwal B, Shishodia S. Molecular targets of dietary agents for prevention and therapy of cancer. Biochemical Pharmacology [serial online]. May 14, 2006:1397, 1421.
  10. Rana Z, Malcolm R. C, Christine L. Le M. Bioactive Chemicals from Carrot (Daucus carota) Juice Extracts for the Treatment of Leukemia. Journal of Medicinal Food [serial online]. November 2011;14(11):1303-1312.
  11. Potter AS, Foroudi S, Stamatikos A, Patil BS, Deyhim F. Drinking carrot juice increases total antioxidant status and decreases lipid peroxidation in adults. Nutr J. September 24, 2011;10:96.
  12. Buijsse B, Feskens E, Kwape L, Kok F, Kromhout D. Both α- and β-Carotene, but Not Tocopherols and Vitamin C, Are Inversely Related to 15-Year Cardiovascular Mortality in Dutch Elderly Men. Journal of Nutrition [serial online]. February 2008;138(2):344-350.
  13. Vitamin Library: Beta-Carotene. Andrew Weil, MD website. Available here. Accessed November 19, 2014.
  14. Rock CL, Lovalvo JL, Emenhiser C, Ruffin MT, Flatt SW, Schwartz SJ. Bioavailability of beta-carotene is lower in raw than in processed carrots and spinach in women. J Nutr. 1998;128:913-916.
  15. Firecrackers. Food Network website. Available here. Accessed December 3, 2014.