Greatness of the Humble carrot

Photo of carrots selectively bred to produce different colors.

Carrots selectively bred to produce different colors. Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

Carotenoids, you say... what are carotenoids?

Carotenoids are one type of chemicals found in natural plants. Consider them the tools in nature's palette as they provide color to animals and plants alike. More than five hundred carotenoids have been identified, but only forty or so are found in the human diet. Most carotenoids have strong antioxidant power and can stop the damage caused by free radicals. According to latest research, carotenoids play an important role in protecting against a whole host of degenerative diseases, cancer, heart disease, and degenerative eye disease to name a few. Their role extends to help balancing the immune system.

Carotenoids are found in colorful fruits and vegetables like grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, mangoes, oranges, guava, spinach, kale, beet greens, tomatoes, red peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes and carrots! They proved wrong the fact all goodness in vegetables is lost by cooking, research proved that absorption of carotenoids becomes much more effective when fruits and vegetables are cooked.

Other factors affecting the level of carotenoids in the body are: Gender -men tend to have lower levels than women. Age -absorption levels are reduced as we age. Smoking, alcohol, high cholesterol levels and high weight -all of those usually lead to lower carotenoid levels in our body.

The most important carotenoids in human diet are alfa and beta carotene, cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene.

Alfa and beta carotene

These are pigments responsible for the color in yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables; also found in green vegetables to a lesser extent. The body can convert these two into vitamin A, essential for growth and particularly important for a healthy skin, apart from having antioxidant power on their own. Alfa and beta carotene have an independent function in maintaining a balanced immune system and as shield against infection. The evidence points to carotene being able to protect the skin from UV light. Alfa and beta carotene are considered part of the daily intake of vitamin A and there are no recommended daily amounts, though 6 mg per day is considered to be optimum and 25 mg the upper safe figure. An excess of vitamin A is toxic for the body, carotene is considered a safer option because it is only converted into vitamin A when required. The skin can turn yellow-orange behind the ears, palm of hands and sole of feet if the intake is too high for too long, but this is not dangerous. There have been some hints about a high intake of beta carotene increasing the risk of lung cancer on smokers.

People with diabetes, hypothyroidism, or liver disease can have some trouble in converting carotene into vitamin A; otherwise, there is no deficiency in the developed world, but in the developing countries many children go blind every year due to lack of vitamin A. Those exposed to strong sunlight might need a boost in their carotene intake.

Good sources of carotenes are dried apricots, carrots, broccoli, kale, lettuces, mango, papaya or paw-paw, pink grapefruit, red peppers, pumpkin, sweet potato, and spinach.

Cryptoxanthin

Cryptoxanthin is also a yellow-orange pigment and it can be converted into vitamin A. Cryptoxanthin is associated with a diminished risk of certain cancers. It is found in mangoes, papayas, oranges, and carrots. Lutein and zeaxanthin

These carotenoids appear often in green or yellow vegetables -they are responsible for the shades of yellows and browns, and temper the reds to make them orange- and they are associated with the macula lutea, the area of the retina where clear and sharp vision happens. They act like a filter, protecting the eye from sunlight. Not surprising that degenerative eye diseases are linked to low levels, in particular age related macular degeneration, top of the list in the reasons over 60s can go blind. They are also powerful anti cancer agents.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in huge amounts in kale, beet greens, collard greens, romaine lettuce or leeks, yellow peppers and carrots are also a good source. Juice or cook the vegetables for optimum absorption. Kale or spinach juice might come out really bitter, so cooking seems a much better option.

Lycopene

Lycopene is the main carotenoid in red vegetables and fruits, tomatoes, watermelon, red peppers, red grapefruit or guavas, and carrots. We rely entirely on diet to obtain lycopene, not surprisingly, most of it comes from tomatoes or tomato based products.

Cooking concentrates lycopene and increases absorption, so don't feel guilty about that ketchup you use on everything, make home made tomato sauce often and indulge in gazpacho. Just two glasses of tomato juice every day will give you optimum levels. Levels of lycopene aren't affected by alcohol or smoking, but age does. Lycopene seems work as protection against some cancers.

The goodness in carrots

Their greatness lies in being a source of all carotenoids mentioned above. Carrots are an excellent source of beta carotene, a very good source of alfa carotene, a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin, a source of cryptoxanthin, and it also adds to your lycopene levels. On top of that, carrots are also a good source of thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate and the minerals manganese, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and potassium. Their fat and cholesterol contents are extremely low, very close to none. Their glycemic index and low glycemic load makes them suitable for many special diets.

Getting carrots into your diet

Grating raw carrots into your salads or serving carrot sticks with a dip is not a bad idea at all, but it would actually work better if you cooked them first. To prepare a warm potato and carrot salad, boil two large potatoes and two large carrots in their skins. Let them cool down, peel the skin off, dice them and use mayonnaise as dressing. Adding a few tinned peas and tuna would make it into a Russian salad. Decorate with sliced olives and strips of roasted red peppers.

A simple carrot and potato puree can make a great starter. Cook two medium potatoes and two medium carrots, peeled and diced, and one onion, peeled and roughly chopped, in water or vegetable stock until tender; add a little olive oil when they are almost done. Season to taste and liquidize. You can prepare a turnip and carrot puree in a similar fashion. Lightly frying the vegetables in the oil before adding the stock will add a more sophisticated touch.

Bake carrots and parsnips, peeled and diced, and serve coated in white sauce. Add sliced carrots to your lentil or white bean soups.

Juice one carrot, peeled and diced, and one orange, peeled, white pith and pips removed. Add some fresh ginger for taste.

Anne Ehmer is a freelance writer. She is one of the contributors to All Foods Natural and World Food and Wine, where her work appears regularly. Her writing is interesting, informative and reader-friendly.

Copyright © 2007 Anne Ehmer