Cooking and Baking with Carrots: Nutrition, Phytonutrients, and Slimming Benefits

Are you a carrot lover? For many people, memories of detesting and avoiding the vegetables urged upon us by parents in our youth, are ameliorated by our fondness for carrots, that most palatable, sweet and colourful of vegetables.

But should we all make like Bugs Bunny and start chowing down on the orange wonder food? We’ve all had parents and grandparents extol the nutritional wonders of the carrot (and in my mother’s wartime childhood she was required to consume large quantities to enable her to ‘see in the dark’!) But food scientists these days seem to come up with contradictory reports for every food out there on a regular basis. Are carrots really good for you?

What Are Carrots? What is Beta-Carotene?

Carrots are members of the plant family Apiaceae, which also includes parsley, celery, fennel and many wild plants (some of which are toxic). The root is commonly regarded as the main edible part of the plant but some people also like to use the beautiful dark green feathery leaves as a garnish. It can be prepared in umpteen different ways – glazed, boiled, roasted, juiced, julienned, raw and scrubbed. Are you under the impression that all carrots are orange? Not so! Purple carrots are also available (but perhaps not quite as appetising).

Fiber Content and Carotenoids In Carrots

But what about the nutritive qualities of carrots? There are things you're going to want to know: the calories in carrots, vitamins in carrots, their general health benefits. Taking a look at the entry for cooked carrots on the nutritiondata website, it seems that for a nine gram portion, you can expect to be ingesting one gram of carbohydrate and zero grams of fat. As far as vitamins and minerals go, carrots are notable for their Vitamin A content (in the form of a precursor). They also contain other nutrients such as Vitamin C and potassium.

The fiber content of carrots is not significant looking at the nutritiondata entry, but it may be useful when you put it in the context of the recommended quantity of twenty-five grams per day for a woman according to one authority.4 (The quantity for a man is thirty-eight grams). Every little helps! It may be even more useful than you know: one study3 has suggested that the fibre in carrots and carrot puree, along with that in other foods, can increase satiety and decrease overall calorie consumption, leading to weight loss. Carrots have been demonised previously by adherents of low-carbohydrate diets, but a 2008 article in Prevention magazine defends the carrot's reputation as a dieter's friend, pointing out that it contains only six grams of sugar, combined with complex carbohydrates and useful nutrients, per cup of raw carrot.1

But of course the most famous nutrient that can be found in carrots isn’t a vitamin or a mineral at all. Beta-carotene is a member of the class of phytonutrients called carotenoids – and as you might expect, carrots are extremely rich in it! Beta-carotene has anti-oxidative properties (which is generally regarded by nutritionists and food scientists as good news). However there have been some studies that suggest that if taken in excess then the beneficial effects of beta-carotene may be reversed, perhaps due to other biological stresses combined with it, or due to taking beta-carotene in isolation.2

Beta-carotene is by no means the only carotenoid in existence – others include strange and exotically-named substances such as lycopene and zeaxanthin. Many – although not all – carotenoids, are constituents of plants that commonly form part of the human food supply. But beta-carotene is the famous one that we’ve all heard of! It is what is known as a ‘precursor’ for Vitamin A. This means that the body can produce Vitamin A out of the beta-carotene that you consume.

Are carrots better for you raw or cooked? Some studies suggest that some carotenoids may be better absorbed from cooked food2: but personally I don’t worry about it. If I’m eating my vegetables, I figure I’ll be okay!

Is it possible to eat too many carrots or ingest too much beta-carotene? If you’re taking beta-carotene as a food supplement then personally that is something I would want to clear with my doctor before just popping pills. There are stories of people consuming huge quantities of carrot juice and developing a delicate orange hue (like a tan!). I don’t know if this is just an urban myth though! I don't think I'll be worrying too much about it: carrots are nutritious, delicious, possibly an aid to weight-loss – and they'll be making regular appearances in my store cupboard and on my plate for the forseeable future. Off to make a healthy carrot soup right now!



References.

1. Ansel, K., R.D. 'Healthy Veggies You Think Are Bad For You.' Prevention. June 2008: pp. 91-96.

2. Grune, T. (Ed.) 'Clinical Use of Carotenoids - Antioxidative Protection versus Prooxidative Side Effects.' Free Radicals and Diseases: Gene Expression, Cellular Metabolism and Pathophysiology. Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2005.

3. Wilson, T. 'Nutrition Guide for Physicians.' New York: Humana Press, 2010, p.18.

4. Stencel, C. 'Report Offers New Eating and Physical Activity Targets

To Reduce Chronic Disease Risk.' nationalacademies.org 2002. <http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=10490> Accessed 15/06/2010.




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