Carrots hardly need any introduction as they are widely used in our cooking. The question is how to eat the striking orange vegetable that is known to be very nutritious in order to benefit from all the nutrients supplied by the humble-looking tuber. Is it better for us to eat them raw?
Try eating carrot and cucumber without cutting them into small slices. You will find that you need to chew much longer, which is good exercise for your jaw, before swallowing.
Better raw or cooked?
Cooking is usually not the best way to prepare many types of vegetables, but cooking may increase the goodness of carrots.
Traditionally, Chinese believe that food is best eaten cooked. Vegetables are commonly stir-fried, blanched in hot water or used to make soups. They believe that cooked food provides the best nutritional absorption. This is very true for carrots.
Carrots have tough cellular walls. Cooking partially dissolves the cellulose-thickened cell walls and breaks down the cell membranes. This frees up nutrients within for better digestion and absorption.
The orange colour of the carrot indicates that it contains vitamin A and carotenoids. These nutrients are not easily destroyed by cooking. In fact, cooking breaks down the fibres and increases their bioavailability. If you are served with a bowl of ABC (carrot) soup, remember the oily layer has the most vitamin A.
You may have noticed that carrots in stir-fried vegetables taste sweeter than raw ones. This is another advantage of cooking carrots. Take care not to overcook carrots to ensure that they retain their maximum flavour and nutritional content.
If you prefer them lightly-boiled or steamed, cook them whole as cut carrots would leach potassium and other minerals into the water. So long as cooked carrots are served as part of a meal that has some fat, the body can absorb the vitamin A.
It is undeniable that carrots are still full of goodness when eaten raw. A healthy way to enjoy the raw goodness is to drink carrot juice. However, the valuable fibres would have been removed in the process.
Fear of yellowish hue
Consumption of too many carrots or too much juice may result in your skin, mostly on the palms, developing a yellowish-orange cast. This is a condition known as caratoderma. If this occurs, reducing the consumption of carrot will result in the orange cast fading off.
The colour is a sign of excessive levels of carotene in the blood. This is due to a beta-carotene overdose. In our liver, beta-carotene is converted into functional vitamin A. The excess carotene is stored, usually in the palms, soles or behind the ears.
Taken on empty stomach, our body cannot really assimilate more than 250 ml of carrot juice at one time. To avoid excessive intake of carotene, always drink small glasses of carrot juice. Drinking more than five glasses of carrot juice per week may cause the skin to turn yellow slightly.
Nutrient for the eyes
Take a closer look at sliced carrot. Have you noticed that the radiating lines look like the pupil and iris of our eyes? That is the “signature” of carrots. It has led to the traditional belief which equates the form of food to its health benefits. In this light, carrot is said to be good for our eyes.
Carrots are an excellent source of antioxidants, especially the beta and alpha-carotenes and other phenolic compounds. Carotenes keep our eyes healthy and slow down degeneration.
Beta-carotene protects vision and is especially needed for night vision. After the beta-carotene has been changed into vitamin A in our liver, it travels to the retina where it is transformed into rhodopsin, the purple pigment that is necessary for night-vision.
Beta-carotene is also an antioxidant that provides protection against macular degeneration and the development of senile cataracts, which are the leading causes of blindness in the elderly.
If you are a smoker or are frequently exposed to second-hand smoke, then eat carrots regularly. A common carcinogen in cigarette smoke is benzoapyrene. This residue induces vitamin A deficiency, but a diet rich in vitamin A can help counter this effect.
The antioxidant vitamin A is also important in keeping our skin, lungs and intestinal tract in order, and in promoting healthy cell growth.
In the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, February 2005, it was reported that falcarinol provides protection against colon cancer. Carrots contain the phytonutrient falcarinol.
Beta-carotene, the major nutrient in carrot, can be converted into a substance called retinoic acid in our body. Retinoic acid is used to treat cancers.
Eating carrots may stimulate milk flow during lactation. Carrots are believed to have estrogenic activities similar to female hormones. It is probably due to beta carotene-like compounds that stimulate production of mother’s milk.
Carrot soup has been a natural remedy for diarrhoea in children.
A small cupful of grated carrot eaten during breakfast is used to eliminate threadworms in children and prevent dandruff.
Chewing of carrot supplies enzymes, increases saliva and promotes better digestion. This helps prevent digestive disorders. Carrot juice is a food remedy in ailments like intestinal colic, colitis and peptic ulcers.
Normally, the sugars in carrots are concentrated in the centre core. Those with larger diameters will have a larger core and therefore will be sweeter. Store carrots away from apples, pears, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables, otherwise the ethylene gas produced will turn them slightly bitter.
Carrot is known scientifically as Daucus carota. It can be as small as five centimetres or as long as a metre. When choosing carrots, look at the stem end – a dark colour indicates that it has aged.
We usually associate carrots with orange colour. Have you ever seen purple carrots? Or even white, yellow or red ones? We may see them in the future.
Chia Joo Suan is a food chemist who advocates safe eating habits. She is the author of What’s in your food? (Pelanduk).
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