Kaleidoscopic Carrots

For more than a hundred years, carrots and orange have been synonymous. Now, rediscovered heirlooms and recently bred purple, red, yellow, and white varieties are enticing gardeners and cooks alike.

In Afghanistan, where carrots originated, purple, red, and yellow are common colors for these roots. But the color isn't just for show: the pigments are phytochemicals that help protect plant tissues from damage, and some phytochemicals may help protect us from disease as well. Familiar orange carrots get their color from beta carotene, which is the primary source of vitamin A and is an antioxidant (a compound that helps protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer).

'Dragon' sports a deep purple skin containing anthocyanin, an antioxidant that may help reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Golden 'Lubiana' and 'Sweet Sunshine' contain a yellow pigment revealing the presence of the carotenoid lutein, which may help reduce damage to the retina that can lead to blindness. 'Nutri-Red', the color of a ripe tomato, is full of another carotenoid called lycopene that has been found to lower the risk of prostate, stomach, and colon cancers.

'Belgian White' is the most unusual: it lacks pigment so is also missing some healthful phytonutrients. But its striking color will fool even the pickiest eater. Check mail-order catalogs for availability.

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