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Researchers working on a better carrot


May 5, 2009
By Hugh McElhone

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The ubiquitous carrot is no longer considered a boring vegetable staple but has become a trendy snack food among consumers looking to improve their health.

p6_carrot_bunch
Health factors have led to an increase in popularity for the humble carrot. In 1975, North Americans consumed an average of four pounds of carrots per person per year. By 2007, that had increased to 12 pounds per person.


The ubiquitous carrot is no longer considered a boring vegetable staple but has become a trendy snack food among consumers looking to improve their health.

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Carrots have been grown as a cultivated crop for approximately 1,100 years, says researcher Philipp Simon, with the horticulture department at the University of Wisconsin. And they were not always a brilliant orange in colour, nor the slender uniform size seen in grocery stores. The heritage carrots of old grew to all shapes and sizes and were generally white, red-white, purple, red, yellow, as well as orange.

Coming from the species Daucus carota, carrots are naturally high in sugar, minerals, antioxidants and provide a rich source of dietary fibre. Carrots are also an excellent source of beta-carotene, which the body metabolises into vitamin A.

p6_baby_carrots 
The development of the baby carrot in the late 1980s has led to a boom in carrot consumption among health-minded consumers, says researcher Philipp Simon. 
p6_carrot_juice 
The market segment for carrot juice has been growing steadily according to Philipp Simon.


 

These health factors have led to their increasing growth in popularity. In 1975, North Americans consumed an average of four pounds of carrots per person per year. By 2007, that had increased to 12 pounds per person.

“The development of the baby carrot has led to the boom we’re seeing now,” says Simon. “They’re convenient and easy to eat. Just open the bag and pop them in your mouth.”

Consumers can also get their hit of beta-carotene through the convenience of carrot juice. While Simon is not sure who the main juice consumers are, he says that market segment has been growing steadily.

Simon says carrots have other uses in the market place. Their colour pigments, in particular purple, are increasingly being used for food colouring. Like beets, carrots can be used to produce sugar; and like corn, they can be used as a bio-fuel. The oil from carrot seeds has also proved to be excellent lubricant in industrial applications.

Carrots were left relatively untouched by science until the 1960s when the first successfully commercial hybrids were developed. “Today, there are good breeding programs in the U.S. and the European Union. We share our molecular breeding tools and it’s been good for them, good for us,” says Simon.
“Consumers want high carotene carrots but they want good taste too,” he adds. Researchers continue to work on reducing the ‘turpentine taste’ and ‘woody texture’ that is occasionally found in carrots, while improving the sweetness and flavour.

Researchers also have a wish list of characteristics they would like to see in growing the crop, such as resistance to root knot nematode. They are also working on better alternaria leaf blight controls, and improving resistance to bolting.

“In these days of water shortages, we’re also working on hybrids that are more tolerant to heat and drought,” says Simon. “Having a 60-day crop would also be nice but maybe that’s a dream.”

Carrots are an ideal crop for large or small operations, and global production has been increasing steadily, says Simon. Brazil alone has increased its carrot production by 35 per cent in the last 10 years, he notes.

“There’s a great potential here to improve this crop.”

And of his wish list, he believes, “it can be done. There are still issues to face and problems to deal with, but there is also a very promising future for this crop.”

Simon is also part of a research team that includes researchers with the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin. The team recently published results in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry of research they have conducted examining the antioxidant activity and capacity of seven coloured carrot cultivars. The researchers looked at different contents of antioxidants, including anthocyanins, chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid and carotenoids. Their results showed that anthocyanins were the major antioxidants in purple-yellow and purple-orange carrots while chlorogenic acid was a major antioxidant in all the carrot cultivars. As a result, purple-yellow carrots had the highest antioxidant capacity, followed by purple-orange carrots. All of the other colours and varieties were not significantly different in their antioxidant capacities.

“This information is useful for consumers and may help horticulturalists develop carrots with higher antioxidant capacity,” the researchers concluded.

 Ontario carrot trimmer implementation project
 The
Pest Management Centre (PMC) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
(AAFC) recently posted a call for proposals to conduct demonstration
trials to promote carrot foliage trimming technology for reduced risk
management of white mould.

White mould in carrots is caused
by Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, a fungus that continues to pose a serious
threat to carrot production across Canada. Recent report indicate
losses of $1,000 to $1,600 per hectare in stored carrots in Prince
Edward Island and up to 15 per cent crop loss in Nova Scotia.

In a previous PMC funded project, AAFC researchers in P.E.I.
successfully built, demonstrated and promoted the adoption of a
mechanical carrot foliage trimmer prototype. The project demonstrated
that foliage trimming alone (without the use of fungicides)
significantly reduced carrot loss due to white mould in the field and
in storage. From this research, growers in the Atlantic provinces are
incorporating the use of the trimmer in commercial production systems.
Oxford Frozen Foods, operating in Nova Scotia, built and used a trimmer
on approximately 1000 hectares of carrots in 2007 and 2008.

The trimming technology consists of a mechanical device that laterally
trims carrot tops, removing a portion of the canopy between the rows.
Research has shown that by opening up the carrot canopy through
trimming, there is an increase in sunlight penetration and airflow,
creating an unfavourable climate for white mould development.

The purpose of the project was to allow Ontario carrot growers the
opportunity to test and evaluate the technology in Ontario production
systems. A funding limit of up to $75,000 for up to three years was
available for the project.
For more details on the project, visit www.merx.com and type “carrot” in the search box.

 The pigment power in carrot colours
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 White carrots
 Health benefits – none from the pigment but fiber helps in digestive health
 Pigment – no pigment, like wild carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace)
  Origin – Northern Europe, 1600s
 Orange carrots
 Health benefits – Vitamin A, essential for healthy eyes and a health immune system
  
Pigment – beta and alpha carotene
  
Origin – Europe and the Middle East, 1600s
 Purple-orange  carrots
  Health benefits – helps prevent heart disease and strokes, antioxidant ties up harmful free radicals, Vitamin A activity
  Pigment – Anthocycanin, beta and alpha carotene
 Origin – Afghanistan, Turkey and the Middle East, 900s
 Red carrots
  Health benefits – helps prevent cancer, especially prostate; Vitamin A activity  
 Pigment – lycopene (another carotenoid) and beta carotene
 Origin – India, China and Japan, 1700s
 Yellow carrots
 Health benefits – eye health (especially macular degeneration) and cancer prevention
 Pigment – xanthophylls (other carotenoids), especially lutein
 Origin – Afghanistan, Turkey and the Middle East, 900s
Information courtesy of Philipp Simon, USDA and University of Wisconsin


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