Some of my favorite vegetables to sample in my nutrition classes are the beautiful rainbow carrots, available by the bunch and also as “baby carrots” in convenient ready-to-eat bags. These colorful carrots look beautiful when served and are packed with a variety of carotenes — nutrients that protect our bodies from cancer, cataracts and cardiovascular disease. New research also finds that carotenes can even enhance our physical attractiveness!!
Carrots are an outstanding source of beta carotene, a carotene that can be converted into essential vitamin A. Vitamin A is required for the body’s immune system, eyes and normal cellular growth. But this is only the tip of the iceberg for the benefits of dietary carotenes.
Beta carotene is well established as an antioxidant, and there is good evidence that eating more beta carotene-rich foods will boost the immune system, protect cells from carcinogens and possibly lower risk of heart disease.
Beta carotene is one of dozens of carotenes, and each color in the bunch of rainbow carrots provides its own carotene cocktail, supporting our health in distinct ways: purple carrots are exceptionally high in alpha carotene, yellow carrots are rich in lutein, and red carrots provide lycopene.
Lutein gets stored in the eye’s retina, where it protects against cataracts and macular degeneration. Once in our eyes, lutein can absorb 90 percent of the blue light emitted from today’s electronic devices that frequently cause discomfort and impact sleep quality. Our eyes rely on our diets for these plant pigments, and research shows that people with the highest intake have fewer problems.
Lycopene, most often associated with tomatoes, is also found in red carrots, as well as a handful of other red foods including watermelon and pink grapefruit. In males, lycopene is stored in the testes, where it may help fight prostate cancer. Lycopene also supports skin health and may be beneficial for heart and bone health.
Purple carrots have the highest carotene levels, and these purple colors come from anthocyanins – another type of antioxidant often found in colorful berries that is protective against heart disease, cancer and cognitive decline.
Carrots don’t just contain carotenes; they also boast many other phytonutrients with additional anti-cancer properties. And, like other vegetables, carrots are a great source of vitamins C, K, potassium and fiber.
Maximizing your carotenes
Carrots are so versatile and easy to enjoy — grated and tossed into your salad, chopped and roasted in the oven with other colorful vegetables, or dipped in hummus for a quick, easy snack. You also can find carotenes in leafy greens, hardy squash, bell peppers, broccoli, cantaloupe and peaches.
Carotenes are best absorbed when these foods are chopped or pureed and lightly cooked. Raw carrots contain carotenes; they just aren’t as readily absorbed as after cooking. Adding some fat to your meal (salad dressing, nuts) will further maximize your body’s absorption of carotenes.
Choosing organic is a good move, too. Organic vegetables often contain higher levels of carotenes, likely because carotenes are part of the plant’s defense system. A recent study found that levels of carotenes, vitamin C and other antioxidants were higher in organically grown carrots, and similar trends are found in tomatoes and other summer fruits. One theory of the nutritional advantages of organic produce is that the lack of synthetic pesticides pushes plants to work harder to protect themselves in the field, producing more carotenes and other compounds as protection for the plant. When we choose organic, we also benefit from these higher levels of antioxidants.
Supplements of isolated carotenes don’t seem to offer the same health benefits as whole foods, which contain a range of nutrients that work synergistically together. For cancer prevention, heart health and supporting your eyes, it’s ideal to get these nutrients from a variety of colorful foods for optimal benefits.
A healthy glow
One of the most fascinating traits of carotenes is that once our blood levels reach a saturation point, these carotenes are stored in our skin, where they continue to offer protective effects. Carotenes have the ability to absorb light, and in our skin, carotenes help protect our cells against the damage caused by sunlight, blocking ultraviolet light from damaging our skin cells.
Carotenes can also function as a very mild sunblock — nowhere near what you get from commercial sunscreens, but they have a modest effect. Carotenes’ sun protective quality can benefit those with extreme sun sensitivities.
It’s intriguing that the prime of harvest season when the most colorful fruits and vegetables are in peak season coincides with the peak of summer sun, when we need sun protection the most. Contrast this with winter’s hardy root vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, sunchokes and turnips — all peak during the time of year when we don’t need as much sun protection.
People consuming extravagant amounts of carotenes gradually will develop an orange/yellowish colored hue, as more and more of these carotenes are stored in our skin. Carotenemia — the yellow-orange pigmentation of the skin that follows a high-carotene diet — is completely safe and not an indication of vitamin toxicity or other health concerns.
Even moderate amounts of carotenes in the diet can be detected in our skin and create a healthy glow. Researchers recently have shown that these colorful pigments are more visually appealing to members of the opposite sex, and there is a hypothesis that this could be an internal cue humans use to find healthy people to mate with. Interestingly, birds use beta carotene in their diet to produce colorful feathers, which help them attract mates. It appears that carotene-rich foods have a similar appeal in humans.
Colorful foods such as rainbow carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, peaches and melons are in peak season this month – so it’s an ideal time to increase your intake of carotene-rich foods to protect and beautify your body from the inside out.
What about baby carrots?
As I previously reported (in much greater detail) …. Baby carrots don’t offer quite as much nutrition or flavor as full-sized carrots, but their convenience can make them more practical for many shoppers. Pre-washed baby carrots:
- Are made from imperfect, often immature carrots that have been cut, peeled and washed in a chlorine rinse to prevent bacterial contamination and extend shelf life.
- Contain approximately 20-50 percent fewer vitamins and minerals than full sized carrots, and aren’t quite as robustly flavored.
- Can make good snacks, especially when dipped in your favorite bean dip or salad dressing.
This article was written for the Sound Consumer.