The history of the humble carrot

Photo by Markus Spiske

Carrots are a staple food, but they haven’t always been. Why are carrots good for you? What was the link between World War II and carrots? I love a bit of geekery so here is a vegetable related history lesson!

Carrots have been cultivated as early as the 10th century and were originally bred from a wild plant which was thin, white heavily forked root. The first cultivated carrots were purple as they contain anthrocyanins. This purple colour leaches into any cooking water and when a yellow mutant appeared this was preferred leading to the orange carrots that are common today.

Carrots contain a high concentration of carotenoids which are precursors to vitamin A production in the body. When food rationing was introduced during World War II the government began promoting carrots as an easily grown, nutritious source of vitamin A. Carrots were used to replace sugar in many war time recipes. The Ministry of Food gave incentives to farmers for production of carrots which was so successful that it led to a surplus of carrots in 1942. They responded by a propaganda campaign which highlighted that RAF fighter pilot’s exceptional night flying skills were due excellent night vision from eating carrots. It worked, and people began eating the excess, as they believed that it would help their vision during black-outs. It also helped to confuse the enemy who believed we were able to see the planes attacking rather than using radar! This history is the basis of the myth that carrots will help you “see in the dark”. We now know that eating carrots will not help you see in the dark, however if you don’t get enough vitamin A in your diet it can lead to problems with you vision so eating carrots wasn’t terrible advice!

DOCTOR CARROT the Children’s best friend Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

“There used to be a joke about only donkeys eating carrots. Now it seems we are all donkey’s if we don’t”

Kitchen Front broadcast, Ministry of Food, 1941.

Carrots were even used as a secret code message to communicate with the French resistance on D day. “The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked” was a signal to pre-pare to sabotage railway lines and tele-phone exchanges.

Information adapted with thanks to the ‘World Carrot Museum’