Although purple carrots offer more health benefits than standard orange carrots and are similarly tasty and crunchy, they aren't familiar in supermarkets. That may change as word spreads about the disease-fighting potential of anthocyanins, the plant chemicals that give red, blue and purple foods their color. Purple carrots originated in the Middle East long before orange carrots and contain up to 28 times the anthocyanins in orange varieties. They are common in Middle Eastern marketplaces.
Historical Roots of Purple Carrots
White and yellow wild carrots were first cultivated in the Middle East about 5,000 years ago and transformed over time into larger, sweeter yellow and purple varieties. Orange carrots likely first evolved in Turkey, then red varieties appeared and were recorded by the Greeks in 65 A.D. By the 1700s, the Dutch developed orange carrots that displaced purple varieties due to better taste and nutritional value. Nowadays, the flavor and nutritional value of purple carrots have caught up with orange varieties.
Purple is just one color in the carrot rainbow. Other exotic colors include pink, red, white, yellow and purples so dark they appear black. Also, purple carrots often have a green, yellow or orange core, which makes for a colorful salad.
Anthocyanins, Carotenoids and Vision
Anthocyanins are a group of plant chemicals, or phytochemicals, within the larger flavonoid group of plant pigments, which act as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents. Purple carrots also contain carotenoids, which give orange foods their color. Both carotenoids and anthocyanins play a role in maintaining good vision. In particular, the body converts the carotenoid beta-carotene to vitamin A, which aids eyesight.
Powerful Purple Carrot Juice
In the November 2010 issue of the "British Journal of Nutrition," researchers from the University of Queensland showed that purple carrot juice may be helpful in reversing the negative affects of a high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. Rats subjected to the diet developed a wide variety of chronic ailments, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver problems. The researchers noted that the juice was low in carotenoids, which are plentiful in raw carrots. They reported it was likely that the purple juice's anthocyanins were responsible for improving the rats' glucose tolerance as well as cardiovascular and liver function.
Purple carrots are also a good source of soluble fiber, which helps lower blood cholesterol and glucose. An 8-ounce glass of purple carrot juice contains about four medium-sized carrots for a total of 130 calories and nearly 5 percent of the dietary fiber that an adult needs daily based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Breast Cancer Research
In 1988, Professor Leonard Pike of Texas A&M University found some purple-blotched carrots in Brazil and used them to develop a maroon carrot to match the school's color. His research took a more serious turn when he began to hear about the potential health benefits of anthocyanins. The result was the BetaSweet carrot, which is maroon on the outside and orange inside. It is high in both anthocyanins and carotenoids. Subsequently, two breast cancer studies involving both Texas A&M and the University of Arizona compared results from human participants who consumed either BetaSweet or orange carrot juice. "The FASEB Journal" of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology published the first study in 2009, while the second appeared in the journal "Nutrition and Cancer" in 2012. Each study concluded that both types of juice were equally successful in reducing oxidative stress due to raising the levels of carotenoids -- not the anthocyanins -- in the participants' blood.