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Curiosities: Are “baby” carrots really … baby carrots?

September 20, 2010

Sadly, not really.

“There’s something very convenient about (baby carrots), and kids seem to enjoy it. It means more people eating vegetables, and I can’t help but think of that as a good thing.”

Irwin Goldman, professor of horticulture

“It’s like the end of innocence when you find out,” says Irwin Goldman, horticulture professor at UW–Madison. “Every time I talk about this I see people’s faces fall.”

There are true baby carrots out there, but only a tiny amount is actually picked early. Goldman says most of them end up in meals at gourmet restaurants.

The stubby, brilliant orange vegetables marketed as “baby” carrots in produce departments were first made from carrots and carrot pieces that would have been rejected as misshapen or otherwise unusable by carrot growers and processors. They represented a bump in efficiency and a second chance for discards that were still every bit as nutritious as any carrot.

But, as baby carrots came to dominate the carrot market in the United States, Goldman explains, farmers began growing a carrot specifically for parting out in little pieces.

“Now they grow a long, thin carrot, which is really a beautiful carrot in its own right,” Goldman says. “Those carrots are divided up, probably four cuts per carrot, and then the ends are rounded in a tumbler.”

And then they are turned over to a public clamoring for them.

“If you look at the consumption of cello (full-sized) carrots, that never decreased,” Goldman says. “But baby carrots have been hugely successful. It was like adding a brand new vegetable to the market.”

Nothing wrong with that.

“There’s something very convenient about them, and kids seem to enjoy it,” Goldman says. “It means more people eating vegetables, and I can’t help but think of that as a good thing.”