Where do baby carrots come from? There are a couple of answers. First, they come from a field of dirt, same as all the other carrots.
But they also sprang from the mind of a clever California farmer who was tired of wasting imperfect carrots and whittled them into something he could sell.
You didn’t think a baby carrot was actually a baby, did you? It’s just a carrot, cut in short lengths and run through a grinder.
But now the baby carrot is getting its moment in the spotlight.
A group of vegetable processors and packers calling themselves “A Bunch of Carrot Farmers” are paying for a $25 million campaign to make the world sit up and eat its baby carrots.
Starting with pilot programs at high schools in Syracuse and Cincinnati, they’re aiming to get baby carrots in vending machines. They’re upping the sex appeal with commercials pushing the crunch appeal. (View them at babycarrots.com, but turn down your speakers; they involve the maximum use of electric guitars.)
There’s even a free-download game for iPhone and iPod Touch that involves powering the action by crunching carrots into the microphone.
Before the things multiply like rabbit food, let’s look closer.
Cost vs. convenience
One reason for the new campaign is that baby-cut carrot sales have fallen with the economy, as people cut back by cutting their own.
Is it worth it? We bought a 1-pound bag of organic carrots for $1.49 and several 1-pound bags of organic baby carrots for $2.29 each.
Baby carrots: 80 to 86 carrots per bag. Based on an average of 83, that’s just under 3 cents each.
Whole carrots: Peeling and cutting each carrot into four sticks took about 20 seconds per carrot. But with a yield of 104 carrot sticks, that was a cost of 1 cent each.
Conclusion: Baby carrots are quicker, but they cost three times as much per stick.
In a blind taste test, baby carrots seem sweeter, while the carrot sticks are less sweet but more carroty.
However, that may be a misperception. According to Tim Hartz with the department of plant science at the University of California-Davis, baby carrots and regular carrots — sometimes called cello carrots, for the plastic bag — are the same breeds.
Carrot companies pick the carrots they plant based on a lot of attributes. But in a single field, they’re all the same kind of carrot. Some become bagged carrots, some get ground into babies, some go into frozen or canned food.
Companies can shape the carrots by how they’re planted. Carrots planted closer together stay skinny and become baby carrots. Carrots planted farther apart get fatter, to go in plastic bags.
“If you buy a bag of baby carrots in Charlotte in May and a bag in Chicago in November, it may not be the same variety,” said Hartz. “But there’s not a single variety that is ’baby carrot.”’
There is waste in making baby carrots. They’re cut into 2-inch lengths and run through a grinder to shape them. Like many root vegetables, there is a lot of nutrition just under the skin.
But Hartz discounted fears that a baby carrot has less nutrition than a whole carrot.
Orange veggie tales
Chlorine: Carrots that aren’t labeled organic are rinsed in a weak chlorine solution during processing. (Organic carrots are treated with a citrus solution). A report circulating on the Internet that the white haze on baby carrots is chlorine residue isn’t correct. All carrots, when cut, get a white haze as they dry. Since baby carrots are all cut surface from the grinding, it’s more noticeable.
Charlemagne: Contrary to popular myth, the emperor Charlemagne didn’t introduce the carrot to Europe. Wild carrots originated in the Middle East, and domestic carrots were grown in Babylon in the 8th century B.C. as an herb — the root wasn’t eaten. The Greeks and Romans had carrots, too. But after the fall of Rome, there wasn’t much evidence on what was grown in gardens until 795 A.D., when Charlemagne listed carrots among the things he wanted grown in France and Germany.
Night blindness: Eating carrots won’t improve your vision. Lack of vitamin A can cause night blindness and carrots are high in vitamin A. But the legend about eating carrots so you can see at night has better roots.
During World War II, the British government wanted people to grow and eat carrots to ease food shortages. So they put out a story that carrots were the reason Royal Air Force gunners were having such luck spotting German bombers at night and shooting them down.
People started eating carrots to help themselves find bomb shelters in the dark. And the RAF kept the Germans from finding out the real reason for the gunners’ success: The launch of a new airborne radar system.