Are baby carrots just as healthy as regular carrots?
This is a pretty common question that comes up when you teach nutrition classes in the grocery store, and there is a short version and a long, detailed version of the answer.
The short version: baby carrots aren’t quite as nutritious as regular carrots, but their convenience helps us to actually eat them – and that is much more nutritious than no carrots at all!
For the real nutrition nerds out there (like me!) …. there are actually some pretty interesting nutrient differences between these little babies and the standard (adult-sized?) carrots that you have to wash and slice yourself. For those of you interested in the long version….let’s dig in!
Baby Carrots: the good news!
Baby carrots are made from imperfect, often immature carrots that used to get tossed out, until somebody discovered that these second-rate carrots could be cut, peeled, washed in a chlorine rinse – and then packaged into a convenient bag that extends their shelf-life, and makes a pretty dang convenient snack.
As I recently discovered, baby carrots don’t offer quite as much nutrition (or flavor) as full sized carrots, but their convenience can make these pre-washed carrots so much more practical and easy to eat, that they are a great alternative to other packaged snacks like chips, crackers, cookies, etc…so while carrot for carrot, these little babies may have an inferior nutrient profile: the convenience factor makes you more likely to actually eat them, increasing your intake of vitamin A, C, potassium, fiber, and other nutrients.
Tip: enjoy baby carrots with a dip/salad dressing, or something that provides a little bit of fat, to maximize your absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins and carotenes.
Baby Carrots: the Bad news?
If you simply look at the nutrition label on a package of baby carrots, and compare it to the nutrient label on a package of standard carrots – you probably won’t notice any nutritional differences. This is because:
- not all nutrients are listed on the label,
- it is common practice to use standard values on food labels, rather than actually testing the food inside the package.
I recently dug into the available nutrient data on carrots, using the USDA Food Composition Database….and found surprisingly significant nutritional differences between the cute little baby carrots and their standard (full-sized) carrot peers. In general, the vitamin and mineral content of baby carrots is approximately 20-50% less than full sized carrots:
|Nutrient (per 100g)||Baby Carrots||Regular (“adult”) carrots|
|Vitamin C (mg)||2.6||5.9|
|Vitamin A (RAE)||690||835|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||9.4||13.2|
Because baby carrots are made from less than perfect carrots – it’s not too surprising that the nutrients (and flavors) are not quite as robust as full sized carrots, but I was surprised by how consistently lower the baby carrots are compared to the standard carrots.
One reason for the nutrient differences is that baby carrots often come from immature carrots, picked before they were fully ripe – this means they didn’t have enough time to fully absorb the minerals in the soil, or synthesize as many vitamins during their shorter lifespan.
A second reason for the lower levels of certain antioxidants (vitamin A, C, etc) could be a result of processing: baby carrots are chopped and grated, which exposes the carrot to oxygen, and it may use up some antioxidants to protect itself from the potentially damaging oxidation. Vitamins in food degrade over time, and this process increases with increasing exposure to oxygen, light, and humidity.
And then there is the impact of sanitizing baby carrots by washing them in a light chlorine (bleach) rinse to remove bacteria, and extend shelf-life. This is actually a fairly common practice these days – all of those salad mixes sold in a plastic clamshell package are “triple washed” for maximum convenience.
Triple washing means:
- Rinsed to remove dirt,
- Chlorine-rinsed to remove bacteria,
- “Triple” rinsed to remove chlorine residues.
This process makes those convenient baby greens a great choice for throwing together a quick & easy dinner, but there is a potential downside…
With all that we are learning about the role of “good bacteria” and the microbiome on our health… this might be one more reason to choose the big carrots over the little babies, and the head of lettuce over the “triple washed” package. This triple-washing process is now used on more and more “fresh” packaged produce, and it gets rid of both the “good” and the “bad” bacteria that might have been on the food.
Considering the “hygeine hypothesis” of disease, which suggests that living in today’s sterile environments is very likely impacting (and weakening) our immune system, it certainly makes sense to create a closer relationship with nature, including foods straight from the soil, and ideally pulled straight from your own garden. I was fascinated to learn about “The Dirt Cure” with it’s 700+ references about “growing healthy kids with food straight from the soil” and this message definitely supports the nutritional advantages of the “Adult-sized,” locally-grown, fresh carrots.
So, baby carrots have fewer vitamins and minerals than regular carrots, but the fact that they are so convenient to pack into your lunch, or munch on while driving to work….means that most people can absolutely benefit from choosing these convenient crunchy carrots.
Full-sized carrots provide more nutrients, and possibly more “good bacteria” and prebiotic fibers to support our microbiome – enhancing the immune system, and potentially offering numerous health benefits.
Personally, I buy baby carrots when I am traveling, and want a quick and easy snack to munch on throughout the day. When I’m at home, I always have a bag of full-sized carrots in the fridge – because carrots are one of the most economical vegetables, and they last for weeks. Carrots are so versatile – grated onto a green salad, chopped and roasted in the oven, stir-fried with other colorful veggies, or just sliced and dipped into my favorite ranch dressing.
The baby carrot question comes up pretty frequently when teaching nutrition classes in the supermarket, and it’s one of those questions where I sometimes find myself thinking to myself “if you are worried about the nutritional differences between baby carrots and regular carrots, then your diet is probably fine” and chances are you really don’t need to stress about a 20% reduction in vitamin A, or a 50% reduction in vitamin C…because people who ask this question are likely eating kale for breakfast, and a big raw salad for lunch, and probably eating more than the recommended 5 cups/day of fruits and veggies.
But for the rest of us…who need a little more encouragement to get those 5 cups/day, then just like the label on those baby carrots says: “more matters” so go ahead and eat more carrots!
USDA Food Database – Baby Carrots: