Power Foods: Carrots

Moroccan Carrot Salad

It's not often that a vegetable's greens are considered beside the point. But with carrots, go ahead and compost the leafy tuft that grows above ground. It's the plant's beta-carotene-packed root that takes the nutrition and flavor spotlight.

Health Benefits
Surprisingly, the first carrots weren't orange, but rather dark purple or yellow. They originated in what is now Afghanistan and central Asia before orange ones turned up in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Although you may occasionally see a colorful array at a farmers' market, the orange variety is the most coveted.

The reason? Carotenoids, the antioxidants that give carrots their yellow-orange pigments, may protect against certain types of cancer, heart disease, and cataracts. What's more, beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A, essential for healthy eyes and skin. Specifically, vitamin A helps the eyes adapt from bright light to darkness. Vitamin A also nourishes the tissues of your respiratory and intestinal tract. Because these tissues are full of immune cells, your immune system benefits, too.

Other perks include soluble fiber (which may lower LDL, or "bad," cholesterol), vitamin C, and some calcium. If you're lucky enough to find purple carrots, you may also benefit from anthocyanin, a flavonoid that creates the vibrant hue and has antioxidant properties that may help prevent heart disease and stroke.

How to Buy
You'll typically find carrots sold precut and washed in a bag, tied in a bunch with the leafy tops still on, or with their greens cut off and sold in a bunch. If you do buy carrots with greens, trim them down immediately to 1 inch -- otherwise the carrots will go limp and lose their nutrients more quickly (the greens draw water from the roots, drying them out). Carrots without their tops will stay fresh for about two weeks stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

When buying carrots, choose firm, bright-orange ones without splits or cracks. The deeper the orange, the more beta-carotene present.

Cooking Tips
Since beta-carotene is fat-soluble, cook carrots with a bit of healthy fat like olive oil, or add them to a salad topped with a dressing to help your body absorb the beta-carotene more fully. Steaming carrots until crisp-tender makes their nutrients more available to the body. Watch the mush factor, though -- overcooking can diminish the beta-carotene.

Do You Know?
"Baby carrots" aren't a different breed or any shorter than your average carrot. Farmers plant these carrots closer together to keep them slim and easier to cut. Once picked, they're peeled, cut to snack size, and packaged for the baby-cut market.

Nutrition Breakdown
(Per 1 cup chopped, approximately 128 grams)
Calories: 52
Fat: .31 g
Fiber: 3.6 g = 14 percent DRI*
Vitamin A: 1,069 mcg** = 153 percent of DRI
Vitamin C: 7.6 mg = 10 percent of DRI
Calcium: 42 mg = 4 percent DRI

* DRI, Dietary Reference Intakes, is based on National Academy of Sciences'
Dietary Reference Intakes, 1997 to 2004

** Retinol activity equivalents (RAEs). 1 RAE = 1 mcg retinol or 12 mcg beta-carotene

Text by Alisa Blackwood; recipes by Allie Lewis Clapp

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