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Carrots pack a healthy punch

The carrot is one of the world’s most popular vegetables, second only to the potato. The carrot has been declared 2016’s “Vegetable of the Year” by the Duluth Community Garden Program and the National Garden Bureau to encourage people to plant and eat the common root vegetable.

There’s plenty of goodness to promote so I’m glad to jump on the carrot cart.

Carrots are one of the best food sources of beta-carotene, a nutrient that is converted to vitamin A in our bodies. Vitamin A is important for normal vision, an enhanced immune system and a healthy pregnancy.

People who eat a lot of beta-carotene might have a lower risk of certain kinds of cancer, such as lung cancer or prostate cancer. It also decreases the risk of macular degeneration and loss of vision as we age.

Beta-carotene gives the carrot its orange color but there are also white, red and purple carrots. We absorb a lot more beta-carotene from cooked carrots than we do from raw carrots.

With the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets, the carrot has recently been criticized for having too much sugar and a high glycemic index, a rating that indicates how fast a food may raise blood sugar. However, Jonny Bowden, a clinical nutrition specialist and author of the book "The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth," said we should not let the glycemic index of carrots deter us from eating them. Bowden explains the glycemic load, rather than the glycemic index, is a far better measuring stick for how a food affects our blood sugar and insulin levels. Bowden points out carrots have a glycemic load of three, which he calls "ridiculously low." Despite the low-to-moderate glycemic index rating, carrots are very unlikely to significantly affect our blood sugar.

Bowden regards carrots among the very healthiest foods you can eat, saying carrots contain very powerful antioxidants called carotenoids. Carrots also contain alpha-carotene, which is more powerful and useful than beta-carotene in inhibiting the growth and formation of tumors, according to Bowden and biochemist Michiaki Murakoshi.

Carrots are packed with other nutrients. Three medium-sized carrots contain 60 milligrams of calcium, 586 milligrams of potassium, five grams of dietary fiber and 30,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin A, six times more than the daily recommended allowance. Carrots also contain magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin C.

The popular “baby carrot” was created in the 1980s by Mike Yurosek, a California farmer who saw more than 400 tons of carrots being tossed every day because they were not the perfect shape that the grocery stores wanted. Yurosek wanted to find a use for these deformed carrots and created the 2-inch carrot, which went to market in 1989 and became an instant success. Today “manufactured” baby carrots are created from young full-size coreless carrots cut into 2-inch lengths and peeled to form the rounded edges.

While concerns have been raised about the small carrots being soaked in chlorine, the issue isn’t supported by research. The chlorine rinse is important for food safety and the amount of chlorine is about the same found in the city water they we drink and cook with every day. The white color that may appear on baby carrots stored in the refrigerator for a while comes from dehydration not chlorine.

In the year of the carrot, try some new recipes to enjoy this great vegetable. Here is an easy recipe that uses baby carrots.

Balsamic Glazed Carrots

1 pound baby carrots

½ teaspoon minced garlic

2 green onions, chopped

1 small red pepper, diced

1 Tablespoon olive oil

3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 Tablespoon brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Microwave the carrots for 6-8 minutes until tender. In a medium skillet on medium high heat, sauté garlic, onion and red pepper in olive oil for 3 minutes. Stir in carrots, vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Cook 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in chopped parsley.

Nutrition information: Makes 4 servings. Calories, 100; total fat, 4 grams; saturated fat, 0.5 grams; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 150 mg; potassium, 300 mg; carbohydrates, 15 grams; fiber, 4.5 grams; protein, 1 gram; Vitamin A, 400% of RDA; and Vitamin C. 90% of RDA.