Did you know that before the 17th century, almost all cultivated carrots were deep purple, almost black, in color? Today, the purple carrot is making a comeback as health-conscious consumers are showing interest in this funky-looking heirloom vegetable. While purple carrots provide many of the same health benefits as orange carrots, they also offer some extraordinary nutritional benefits due to their high concentration of anthocyanins. For those who don’t have a background in nutritional sciences, anthocyanins are flavonoid pigments that give many blue, purple, and black vegetables and berries their intense hues and strong health-boosting properties.
In this article, we first take a brief look at the history of the purple carrot and then provide an overview of the nutrition facts and health benefits of this humble superfood.
Cultivated Carrots Were Originally Purple, Almost Black
Most carrots were originally deep purple, almost black, with red and white varieties occasionally popping up. In fact, purple carrots were the dominating carrot variety until the 17th century when Dutch farmers developed the modern day orange carrot by crossing various cultivated and wild carrots.
Today, orange carrot cultivars – such as Adelaide, Scarlet Nantes, Danvers, Imperator, Flyaway, Infinity, Chantenay, and Navajo – are dominating the markets. However, in recent years, small-scale farmers growing organic carrots have also shown interest in heirloom varieties, including purple and black carrot cultivars. Here’s a list of some of the most common purple and black carrot varieties:
- Purple Haze
- Purple Dragon
- Cosmic Purple
- Purple Dutch
Nutrition Facts for Purple Carrots (vs Orange and Yellow Cultivars)
All carrots are low in calories and rich in dietary fiber, vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, and manganese. Furthermore, all carrots (except the white cultivars) are good sources of carotenoids. That said, there are some substantial nutritional differences between purple/black and orange/yellow carrots:
- Fact 1: Orange carrots contain the highest levels of total carotenoids, but also purple cultivars such as Purple Haze contain significant levels.
- Fact 2: In yellow and purple carrots, lutein represents almost half of the total carotenoids. By contrast, in orange carrots, beta-carotene is the dominating carotenoid (65%).
- Fact 3: Purple carrots contain higher amounts of phenolics (especially anthocyanins) and show higher antioxidant capacity than their orange and yellow counterparts.
The Extraordinary Health Benefits of Purple Carrots
While vitamin C and carotenoids, such as lutein, certainly contribute to some of the health benefits of the purple carrot, most of the health-protecting power of this newly rediscovered superfood can be attributed to anthocyanins. In laboratory studies, these plant pigments have been shown to exert extremely strong antioxidant effects (even stronger than vitamin E analogues). Considering the significant amounts of anthocyanins in purple carrots, it is not surprising that purple carrot varieties, such as Purple Haze, have been shown to have stronger antioxidant activity than their yellow and orange counterparts.
Thanks to their antioxidant properties and other chemical characteristics, the anthocyanins in purple carrots may provide the following health benefits:
Anti-Carcinogenic Effects Against Colon Cancer Cells. A group of researchers from the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland analyzed the chemopreventive effects of anthocyanin extracts from various natural sources against colon cancer, and found that all anthocyanin extracts were capable of inhibiting the growth of colon cancer cells. Research also suggests that lutein, the main carotenoid in purple carrots, may provide protection against colon cancer.
Strong Anti-Inflammatory Properties. Research suggests that anthocyanins have strong anti-inflammatory properties which might help alleviate symptoms associated with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Some experts believe that the anti-inflammatory properties of anthocyanins may be even stronger than those of aspirin.
Eye Health Protecting Qualities. You may have already heard that bilberries (wild blueberries) are good for your eyes, but also other anthocyanin-rich foods such as purple carrots may help improve your eye health. Studies suggest that anthocyanins can benefit vision in a number of ways, such as by enhancing night vision, increasing circulation within the capillaries of the retina, fighting macular degeneration, and reducing the risk of retinopathy in diabetic patients.
But the high anthocyanin levels in purple carrots are not the only reason why you might want to snack on these purple goodies if you care about your eyes; the lutein in purple carrots is also known for its eye health protecting qualities. Sometimes referred to as “the eye vitamin”, lutein is commonly used as a preventive treatment for age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and retinitis pigmentosa.
Improved Vascular Health. If you suffer from venous insufficiency or varicose veins and are looking to reduce varicose veins through dietary modification, adding purple carrots and other foods that contain anthocyanins to your diet might be a good start. Anthocyanins help fight varicose veins by neutralizing enzymes that destroy connective tissue, by repairing damaged proteins in the blood vessel walls, and by promoting circulation and overall health of the vascular system.