Purple carrots are new to our markets, but they have a long history in the world

Now in Your Grocery Store: Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?

.Purple carrots are relatively new to our tables here in North America. But they actually have a very long history in the rest of the world. Like the ubiquitous orange carrots we already know, they are high in beta-carotene and vitamin A. The purple colour comes from anthocyanins, the same phytochemicals that give blueberries and red cabbage their colour.

Purple carrots are noted for their role in weight loss. They are also high in fiber, and so are good for your heart health. The antioxidants in purple carrots may also help to prevent heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Are purple carrots genetically modified? Learn the history of carrots and their rainbow of colours. | #24CarrotDiet | GMO | purple carrot juice
Purple carrots are new to our markets, but they have a long history in the world


Where Do Carrots Come From?

Carrots originated in the Middle East about 5000 years ago. They first grew in Persia, which today is parts of Iran and Afghanistan. Early carrots grew wild, just like Queen Anne’s Lace (our wild carrot) does in many places today. Many of these wild vegetables were purple carrots.

People once used just the leaves and seeds of carrots. The roots were bitter and woody, and not nearly as substantial as today’s carrots. But carrot plants were desirable. As carrots spread throughout Arabia, Africa, and Asia, people began to cross different varieties with one another. This breeding improved upon the wild form and eventually gave us the sweet, crunchy root that we know today.

The ancient Egyptians prized purple carrots so much that they buried their Pharaohs with them. Carrots travelled from Egypt to Greece, and then to Rome. Carrots first appear in writing in Greece. Athenaeus wrote about them around 200 C.E.

Our word “carrot” ultimately comes from the Greek καρωτόν (karōton,) which itself derives from the Indo-European root *ker -, “horn.” So the name we’ve inherited for this vegetable describes its shape. The earliest carrots often branched into two or more forks. So they may even have looked like a pair of horns.

Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?

No, purple carrots are not genetically modified. In fact, naturally purple carrots are the earliest varieties of this root vegetable. They grew wild before people started to domesticate them.

Orange carrots didn’t exist in the beginning. But there were yellow carrots, in addition to the purple carrots. White and red carrots came along a bit later. All these colours have been growing consistently, somewhere in the world, since about the Middle Ages. The orange vegetable we eat today appeared fairly recently in the history of carrots.

Purple carrots were grown in Persia, Arabia, and North Africa, at least as far back as the 900s. They spread to Spain in the 12th century, and to Italy and China in the 13th century. By the 17th century, purple carrots had reached Japan as well.

Purple carrots have been popular in parts of Europe for years, but they are only beginning to show up in North America. You should be able to find purple carrots at some farmers markets, and seeds for growing purple carrots are available from most seed catalogues and nurseries. As more consumers become familiar with purple carrots, this will create a demand for the vegetable. We will begin to see purple carrots in grocery stores as that demand influences growers for the organic produce market and then later the conventional vegetable market.



Are Carrots Genetically Modified to Be Orange?

I was watching a video about purple carrots today, and the narrator said that the early purple and yellow carrots were genetically modified to make them orange. This is simply not true.

The World Health Organization definition of genetic modification says that it happens when “the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” The first genetically modified organisms were produced in the early 1970’s. The first genetically modified food to receive approval for sale was the Flavr Savr tomato, in the United States during the 1990s.

Orange carrots were first seen around the 16th or 17th centuries, when most Europeans were eating white, yellow, or purple carrots. Some combination of domestication and natural selection led to an orange carrot, probably as an improvement on the yellow carrot. This new carrot became popular in Holland because of its colour. Dutch farmers grew it in honour of William of Orange, and are responsible for stabilizing the cultivar over the next century or so.

Now the orange carrot is the one much of the world thinks of whenever we say, “carrot.” As this happened centuries before the advent of genetic modification, it’s impossible that the first orange carrots were genetically modified.

Do Purple Carrots Taste Different?

In the video above, personal chef Pat Mulvey says she can taste a subtle difference between carrots of different colours. According to her, the darker carrots have more flavour, while the lighter coloured carrots have a more subtle taste. I’m not sure most of us would be able to notice the difference.

I have grown purple carrots alongside red carrots, orange carrots, and even yellow and white ones. I didn’t find any significant difference in the taste of the carrots, whether we ate them raw or cooked. Purple carrots taste pretty much the same as the orange ones you’ve been eating all your life. Though of course, if you’re buying them from your local farmers market carrots of any colour will taste more fresh than grocery store carrots!

Are Carrots the Only Purple Root Vegetable?

Purple carrots are not the only root vegetables that grow in that particular hue. There are a number of other purple root vegetables, including purple sweet potatoes and a few purple varieties of the usually white potato. There are also purple radishes and purple kohlrabi. And a type of purple yam popular in the Philippines, ube, currently has a huge presence on Instagram.

Growing Purple Carrots in Your Garden

There are several different varieties of purple carrots that you can grow in your garden. A number of other carrot cultivars also exist in hues of white, yellow, red, orange, and even purple so dark it looks black.

Many of the newer coloured carrot varieties have fun names, often inspired by an outer space theme. We have experimented with a mix of carrots that includes ‘Lunar White,’ ‘Solar Yellow,’ ‘Cosmic Purple,’ and ‘Atomic Red’ varieties. These mixes are often sold as “Kaleidoscope Carrots” or “Rainbow Carrots.”

Some purple carrots are purple all the way through. Others are purple carrots, orange inside. There are even purple carrots that are white or pale purple inside. If you have a preference for one or the other of these types, check before you choose your purple carrot seeds. Most seed catalogues will show an image of the cut carrot, or will mention if the core of the carrot is orange or white instead of purple.



Pure Purple Carrots

  • Black Nebula’ Carrot: Grows very dark purple carrots that look almost tie-dyed when cut. This variety has very high levels of anthocyanins, and retains its colour when cooked. If you juice this carrot and then add a little lemon, the juice will turn bright pink. This rare Imperator type carrot is sometimes used to make purple dye. The purple carrots grow quite long, but one listing suggests they are best picked when only 10 cm (4”) long. The leaves and flowers of these purple carrots are tinged with purple. How cool is that? Days to maturity: 75-80.

  • Deep Purple’ Carrot: This is one of the only pure purple carrots available. The colour is very dark, almost black, and doesn’t generally fade with cooking. This Imperator type carrot grows to a length of about 17-20cm (7-8”) but some catalogue listings say they can grow to almost twice that length. This is a hybrid variety. Days to maturity: 75-80.

  • Gniff’ Carrot: These short purple carrots are extremely slow to grow. They are a very rare landrace from Switzerland with an amethyst purple exterior and a white to violet core. The carrots are very striking when cut lengthwise. They only grow to about 10 cm (4”) long, and are traditionally used for pickling in vinegar and olive oil. Days to maturity: 130–140.

Purple Carrots with Orange Inside

  • Cosmic Purple’ Carrot: This is a Danvers type carrot, meaning it’s a tapered carrot about 15-20 cm (6-7”) long. Fiber in carrots of the Danvers type is apparently high, and the carrots are good for longer storage. Cosmic Purple carrots were developed by Dr. Philipp Simon and the USDA Agricultural Research Service team in Madison, Wisconsin. The carrots have an orange core. Their purple colour doesn’t fade when cooked. Days to maturity: 60.

  • Purple Dragon’ Carrot: This is another Danvers carrot. Purple dragon carrots are purple on the outside, with a core that is yellow to orange in colour. Their taste is supposed to be slightly spicy. These purple carrots are open pollinated. Days to maturity: 70-75.

  • Purple Haze’ Carrot: This hybrid carrot was an All-American Selection winner in 2006. It grows purple carrots, orange inside. These Imperator type carrots are 25-30cm (10-12″) long, tapering to a point. The colours are brilliant when the carrots are raw, but the purple fades when cooked. Days to maturity: 70.

  • Other purple carrots include ‘Beta-Sweet,’ ‘Black Spanish,’ ‘Purple 68, ‘Purple Dutch,’ and ‘Purple Elite’.




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Purple carrots are loaded with carotene and anthocyanin
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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

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26 thoughts on “Now in Your Grocery Store: Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?”

  1. Wow. I had no idea there was so much to know about carrots! I had seen the purple and while variety making its way into stores and was curious to know if they were any different than the “traditional” orange. I love mixing in new things and will definitely pick these up soon. Thanks for the information!

    1. I hope we’ll start seeing the purple and white carrots here soon too. Right now, I can get the purple ones only. And that’s just at the farmers market for a few weeks in summer. I’d love to see a more commercial crop coming in! Apparently, purple carrot soup is a thing of beauty. But I’d also love to try my <strong?carrot and cauliflower soup recipe with white carrots. I think it would be very pretty!

  2. I must say I love purple carrots. I am a total believer you eat with your eyes first. I love the color they bring to dishes. I was intrigued by the cosmic version with the orange center. Those would make a beautiful carrot salad, or look great in a stir fry.
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    1. I totally agree, Jen! Food has to look and smell good, not just taste good. We need to find the meal attractive in order to want to eat it 🙂

      I liked the ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrots. The colours are very pretty. I think I’d also like to try the ‘Black Nebula’ and ‘Gniff’ varieties. I love that the latter is a Swiss landrace, but also that it’s a shorter carrot. And the idea of a white core is intriguing. I’m hoping I can get seeds for these varieties and try growing them 🙂

  3. First, just FYI, from my end your amazon ads are messing with the formatting of your post.

    Now, I love purple carrots. I had no idea they’re that much different nutritionally than traditional carrots.

    1. I think it’s mainly the larger amount of antioxidants that makes purple carrots different. They have a lot of anthocyanins. And some reports even say they have more carotene than orange carrots….

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post! I love carrots and I have tried purple and yellow carrots and I always wondered where they came from and what prompts their colour. It’s also nice to know that our conventional orange carrots are not genetically modified, woo!

    1. There are some new carrots that are genetically modified to help people better absorb calcium. These carrots are not yet approved for sale, last I checked. Best I could determine, all other carrots available today are non-GMO. Especially the purple carrots 🙂

  5. I such a carrot addict…it’s one of my favorite healthy snacks! Having said that, I’ve never tried purple ones and am going to attempt to hunt them down at my local store (although I agree, local/farmer’s market options are best). Who’d have guessed the orange color group was the ‘baby’ of the group?

    1. I know, Erin! I was surprised when I learned this years ago. Apparently though, in some parts of the world the purple carrots have stayed popular and this is the most common colour you will find in their stores and markets.

  6. The topic makes me think, how do you define natural anyway? Most of the produce we eat was created through selective breeding, to some degree or another. Some types were developed with specific goals in mind. Selective breeding like that is a type of genetic modification as well. The main difference is that it is indirect and involves natural processes.

    1. The way I look at it is that selective breeding is working with nature. It usually takes multiple generations, and sometimes decades, to achieve the desired result. Selective breeding – for example breeding those purple carrots so the roots were long, sweet, and crunchy instead of woody and stumpy and bitter – uses nature’s own processes. The modification is made by nature. Humans simply select which of the resulting offspring to continue breeding, and which others to cross them with.

      Genetic modification is done at the level of the DNA, in a lab rather than out in a greenhouse or a field. It’s a shortcut, an end-run around nature. It targets a specific gene and switches it on or off. Or it adds genetic material from a completely unrelated organism (often from another kingdom) directly to the DNA of the target organism. In my opinion, that’s the sort of thing you do when you’ve got a crisis on your hands and there’s no time to do it the conventional way. Or when the conventional way has been tried for a long time, and nobody seems able to make it work. It carries a greater potential risk – and often a greater potential benefit. It’s one tool in our toolbox, but it has a very great impact on our environment and on our food supply. So we need to use it with great caution, and only as one of many other tools.

  7. Completely agree that the darker carrots have better flavour. In India its a dark orange almost red carrots that are used for cooking and I have noticed the difference in taste immediately.

    1. I would love to try those carrots! I’ve grown the ‘Atomic Red’ cultivar, but mine came out more pink than red. There are a few orange carrot varieties that claim the roots are a dark orangey-red. So far, I haven’t tried to grow any of these. I loved hearing about the carrots in India. Thanks for sharing, Sunrita!

  8. I’ve never been a huge fan of carrots, but my mother would always purchase purple carrots and that was her way of getting me to eat them. As a child, I felt like purple carrots were much more “fun,” and I ate them up willingly.

    Thanks for sharing! x


    1. Purple carrots were pretty much unknown here in Canada when I was little. I think I would have really loved them as a kid! Then again, I have always been a huge carrot eater. My mother says when I was a baby, my hands and feet turned yellow from eating so many carrots!

    1. There are actually several different colours, ranging from white carrots to golden or yellow ones, red ones, and even purple so dark it looks black. Multiple colours also exist in tomatoes and in beans, of which there are literally hundreds of varieties. What we see in the grocery stores represents such a tiny fraction of the existing food varieties. If you want to see real food diversity, check out an online seed catalogue such as Baker Creek Seeds. Your mind will really be blown after seeing what’s out there!

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