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The Original Carrot Color: Orange or Purple?

Nov 29, 2016 11:07 AM EST

Most people would associate carrots with the color orange and would never dream of seeing this root vegetable in another color. What most people don't know is that the first cultivated carrots were purple or yellow.

Around one thousand years ago, carrots spread to the eastern Mediterranean after being grown and domesticated in Afghanistan. Purple carrots, along with yellow, red, and white ones, were prevalent in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. Around the 1500s, orange carrots were recorded in Italy, Spain, and Germany.

"In my wildest dreams I didn't think that this would come back as a color for consumers," said Philipp Simon in an article in Popular Science. Simon, a carrot geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been working with his team for 35 years, bringing in purple carrots from Syria to test if purple carrots contained genes that could aid in making orange carrots resistant to diseases and pests.

Simon and his team have discovered that a number of purple carrot varieties weren't susceptible to a type of soil nematode that attacks plant roots. Since orange carrots don't have the same kind of resistance to pests, the USDA has been crossing the resistant purple carrots to the orange ones that more recognizable for more than a decade.

"The major purpose of my project is to prepare genetic stocks that carrot breeders will need in the future," shared Simon. "I have no crystal ball, but we talk to growers and consumers. We look at carrots and say, 'Might this be interesting?'"

The Organic Seed Alliance certainly found some of those carrots breeds interesting and has helped to introduce some of the new varieties to small-scale growers. The surprising interest in the unusually colored carrots, as well as the higher prices they fetched, had even larger growers marketing more purple carrots.

Since purple carrots derive their color from anthocyanin, Simon shared that this pigment contains antioxidants that could prevent cell damage and reduce the risk of certain diseases. One study even published that, compared with orange carrots, purple carrots have twice the amount of alpha and beta carotene that the body converts into vitamin A.

"There all kinds of colors out there that are really pretty interesting," said Simon. "We're looking at more combinations."

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