The carrot belongs to the Apiaceae family, and is recognizable by its feathery leaves as a relative of parsley, dill, fennel, cumin, and celery—and the wildflower Queen Anne’s lace, from which it first may have been domesticated.
The carrot that we are familiar with today is quite different from its wild ancestor, which was a small, pale, acrid root. Early varieties of carrots were white, purple, red, yellow, and green, not orange.
Carrots are thought to have been cultivated in the Mediterranean area more than 2,000 years ago. Originally, carrots were probably grown for their purported medicinal value rather than as a food, and for their aromatic leaves and seeds rather than their roots. The type of carrot eaten for its root originated in Afghanistan and was introduced to Spain and Portugal by the Moors early in their nearly 800-year rule there (711 to 1492). By the 1500s, people in all of Europe were familiar with the carrot, and writers of that time described many varieties.
Types of Carrots
There are many varieties of the familiar orange carrot and a number of boutique carrots—including purple, white, maroon, and baby carrots—available in supermarkets and farmers’ markets.
The elongated orange carrot, forerunner of today’s familiar vegetable, was developed in the late 1500s or early1600s in the Netherlands in honor of William I of Orange, the assassinated leader of the Dutch war of independence against Spanish Hapsburg rule. When European settlers came to Colonial America in the 1600s, they brought this sort of carrot seed with them for planting.
Orange carrots may be the most complexly flavored vegetable commonly eaten, containing hundreds of different flavor compounds known as terpenoids. These compounds give carrots their characteristic aromatic flavor. Butin the wrong proportions, terpenoids can give carrots a harsh, bitter, soapy, or piney taste. Most modern orange varieties have a balance between sugars and terpenoids that give the carrot its familiar flavor and sweetness, without imparting any off-flavors.
Other color carrots have undergone relatively little selective breeding to improve taste, so varieties you find at supermarkets or farmers’ markets will likely taste similar to orange carrots, though some may be a bit milder or more robust.
How to Choose the Best Carrots
Look for well-shaped carrots that are a healthy reddish-orange from top to bottom. The darker the orange color, the more beta carotene the carrot contains.
Low in calories, carrots provide both soluble and insoluble fiber, potassium, iron, and vitamin B6.
Carrots are best known for providing large amounts of carotenoids, mostly beta carotene but also alpha and gamma carotenes, lutein, and zeaxanthin. The deeper the orange color, the more carotenoids a carrot has.
In fact, carotene and carotenoids are so named because they were first identified in carrots. Beta carotene is a safe source of vitamin A because its conversion to vitamin A is regulated by the body’s need for vitamin A. However, eating excessive quantities of carrots can cause the skin to develop a yellow or orange cast. The condition is perfectly harmless, and your skin will return to normal within a few weeks if you reduce the number of carrots you eat.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Carrots in the National Nutrient Database.
Carrots: Recipe Ideas and Cooking Tips
Cooking carrots just until crisp-tender makes their nutrients more accessible, and also brings out their sweetness.
Published December 15, 2015