Baby Carrots: The Frugal Idea That Isn't

By Andrea Karim on 13 May 2007 (Updated 24 June 2011) 109 comments

If you are a health-oriented kind of person, and you need a quick, nutritious snack that doesn't require lots of slurping, what do you reach for? Rice cakes, I feel, have been more or less abandoned by people who understand a thing or two about the glycemic index (PDF). No, chances are that if you are looking for a healthy snack, you probably reach for a small baggie of baby carrots. (See also: 6 Healthy Snacks That Won't Break the Bank)

I used to do the same, but these days, I eschew the baby carrot. Here's why.

For those of you who don't know, baby carrots aren't really baby carrots. I was surprised at how many people didn't know that when the topic came up at work the other day. I suppose it's an easy mistake to make — baby carrots are small, they're sweet, and...well, they're small. And they're called BABY. Isn't that enough?

Baby carrots are not young carrots, but rather small pieces of carrots that are chopped and whittled down to look like small carrots. They are peeled, and washed, and insanely convenient. USA Today featured an article a couple of years ago about the origin of the baby carrot, and I have to say, I'm impressed.

History

The story of the baby carrot is an interesting study in contrasts. The baby carrot is the brain child of Mike Yurosek, a Californian farmer who was weary of throwing away tons of carrots every year because they wouldn't sell. Anyone who has ever grown carrots in their garden knows that carrots don't always grow in perfect shapes. Some are bumpy and lumpy and ugly, and even if they taste wonderful, they won't sell in a supermarket if they don't fit that ideal carrot shape.

That bugged Yurosek. And apparently, feeding tons and tons of ugly carrots to livestock wasn't the answer.

Culls are carrots that are too twisted, knobby, bent or broken to sell. In some loads, as many as 70% of carrots were tossed. And there are only so many discarded carrots you can feed to a pig or a steer, says Yurosek, now 82 and retired. "After that, their fat turns orange," he says.

I believe this. As someone who once went on a baby carrot binge and subsequently turned a light shade of orange, I can attest that beta carotene is a strange substance indeed.

In 1986, Yurosek came up with the idea of taking the ugly carrots and cutting them into small pieces of more or less uniform appearance.

First he had to cut the culls into something small enough to make use of their straight parts. "The first batch we did, we did in a potato peeler and cut them by hand," Yurosek says. Then he found a frozen-food company that was going out of business and bought an industrial green-bean cutter, which just happened to cut things into 2-inch pieces. Thus was born the standard size for a baby carrot.

Next, Yurosek sent one of his workers to a packing plant and loaded the cut-up carrots into an industrial potato peeler to take off the peel and smooth down the edges. What he ended up with was a little rough but still recognizable as the baby carrot of today.

Thus, the baby carrot is a product of frugality and an abhorrence of waste, which are two ideas that I can totally get behind. I hate wasting food. I love the idea that a product that might otherwise not be sold can be repackaged and sold. But, and there's always a but....

Yurosek then sent samples of the baby carrots to Von's, a supermarket chain in California that is related to Safeway, and it was love at first sight.

The babies were an economic powerhouse. Stores paid 10 cents a bag for whole carrots and sold them for 17 cents. They paid 50 cents for a 1-pound package of baby carrots and sold them for $1. By 1989, more markets were on board, and the baby-carrot juggernaut had begun.

Ah, there's the rub. Baby carrots are, by and large, more expensive than regular carrots. I'm honestly impressed by the thinking that produced this product, but still — baby carrots are just chopped up, whittled down rejects, and we pay more for them? Well, I'll address that later.

It's the taste, stupid

I stopped buying baby carrots a while ago. It just so happened that I was at a farmer's market a couple summers ago, and ended up buying some dark purple carrots out of curiosity. I thought that they might taste strange, but when I tried one, I was surprised to see that they tasted like... well, like carrots. But the carrot taste was something that I realized I hadn't experienced in at least 10 years.

As someone who had been eating baby carrots for a long time, I had honestly forgotten what a carrot tastes like. Baby carrots are nice — they are usually crispy and sweet, but they are largely flavorless. They don't have that carrot-y taste and smell. It's a tough taste to describe, but it's very distinct. There are many varieties of carrots, of course, but most carrots that you can buy in a supermarket, the kind with a top of green leaves and visible roots, taste and smell distinctly different than a baby carrot, which doesn't taste or smell like much of anything.

>Since trying the first purple carrot, I simply can't go back to baby carrots. While conveniently packaged and pretty handy as finger food, they just don't have that taste. A few months ago, I brought a bunch of organic carrots to my friend's for dinner. I cut off the tops, washed them, and handed one to my friend. He looked at it as though it was some sort of alien life form.

"Just try it," I said. "I know it looks like something that grew in the ground, but I think you'll like it."

He took a super-crunchy bite, and his eyes grew wide. He crunched for a long time, then said, "Huh." He's been hooked every since.

There's just something inherently tasty about carrots, and I don't think that the baby variety have that same taste and texture.

In addition, baby carrots are more expensive than regular carrots. At my local grocery store, baby carrots are often twice the cost of regular-sized carrots. The price difference per pound ranged $0.50 to more than $1. Even Bunny Luve, the brand of carrots from the man who brought us the baby carrot, are cheaper if you buy the whole carrots than if you buy the pseudo-baby carrots.

UPDATE: *Finally, although I didn't realize this when I first wrote this article: baby carrots are made out of a variety of carrot known as the Imperator. They are bred to grow faster and ripen quickly, and because of this, they only have 70% of the beta carotene of a normal carrot.

But they're so popular!

The success of baby carrots speaks to two things about American culture that sort of bug me:

  1. The desire for food that is uniform in appearance and taste.
  2. The desire for food to be sterile, already prepared and washed, and packaged for quick, mindless eating.

It's not that I don't understand these desires, because it's easy to confuse uniformity with quality. I can see why someone who has never grown veggies might look askance at a twisted, bumpy carrot with soil still clinging to it. But imperfect food is still perfectly edible, and incredibly delicious. I'm not advocating accepting rotten apples or wilted lettuce, but I think we've become lousy consumers if we think that the shape of a carrot will affect its flavor.

Why do we care?

And anyway, when was the last time that a carrots appearance mattered? I throw carrots in many dishes, but they are usually sliced or at least chopped, so if one is twisted, it really doesn't make a damn bit of difference. As for convenience — yes, baby carrots are washed and peeled already, but honestly, how long does it take to wash a carrot? Honestly, I buy bunches of carrots from the farmer's market, and I can testify that it takes all of 15 seconds to prep one for consumption. Mind you, I don't peel mine. But think about it: time is precious, but what's an extra minute of food prep?

I was a little hesitant about criticizing baby carrots, because I really like the idea that popular products can be made out of a substance that would otherwise be wasted. But I also think it's rather silly to spend so much more to eat "manufactured" vegetables. In the same way that those plastic containers of sliced honeydew melon are an incredible rip-off (costing sometimes four times more per unit cost, even accounting for rind weight), baby carrots are a good idea that doesn't serve us well.

As a frugal shopper, I advise everyone I know to go back to basic carrots. Bugs Bunny would be proud (or upset by increased demand, who knows?). Here are some carrot tips:

  • Buy the slender, smaller versions (6-9 inches long), as the really big and thick carrots can be woody and tough.
     
  • I read once that leaving the dirt on the carrots actually helps them keep longer, but I never have mine for more than a day or two before I eat them, so I can't testify if this is true or not.
     
  • I like the buy the carrots with the leaves still attached because the leaves don't keep very long — if the leaves are still fresh, I know that the carrots aren't very old.
     
  • You can pretty much chop up a bigger carrot (or just break it in half) to fit in a small tupperware container like you use for those baby carrots that you take to work with you.
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Guest's picture
Kelli

Quick question, in your research about baby carrots, did you come across anything about them saying they put them through a bleach bath as well? That is the reason I quit eating them.

Guest's picture
Guest

"The success of baby carrots speaks to two things about American culture that sort of bug me"

... or actually, maybe people just can't stand the taste of carrots? I hate carrots, and now I finally understand why I can tolerate baby carrots. Barely. I can eat a baby carrot or two before their flavor becomes overbearing. I can't even take a bite of a normal carrot without disgust. Yes there is something very carrot-y about carrots, it's very strong, and quite unpleasant. I prefer baby carrots because I know I can choke them down as a healthy snack, a feat I'd never be able to accomplish with a "normal" carrot. Yuck.

Guest's picture
AJ

This is only true in regards to the "baby-cut" carrots in the little plastic bags. I just bought actual unpeeled baby carrots complete with their leafy tops from Citerella here in NYC. They look like adorable little carrots. And they really are babies as they are immature carrots which are more tender and sweeter than mature carrots and "baby-cut" carrots. They are not to be confused with those carrots they throw through a machine to have peeled and cut into uniform sizes. Those should only be used as compost for the garden. BLEH!

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Laura V

Thanks for this article! I've been buying carrots with green tops and they do taste better than the bagged carrots. Even the large non-"baby" carrots. I find when I steam bagged carrots, they have a funky metallic taste to them. Maybe it's just the ones at my store but they really do taste like they've been steamed with pennies. I eat the green top carrots raw without peeling them. I wash them but don't go nuts about the dirt. When I was a kid, my sister and I would eat things from the garden unwashed all the time and I have gotten sick from dirt yet so meh. I'd rather eat a bit of dirt than chemicals. The only issue I'm going to run into with the green leaf topped carrots is the price out of season. I can only imagine how expensive they will be if they are available at all. I might have to switch back to bagged carrots during the off seasons. I tried growing my own to see if I could get a steady supply going but my little patch didn't produce anything. The carrot tops sprouted but no actual orange carrot grew. Sad. I think it's the dirt where I live. It's just not the right environment for carrots. They are a picky veggie.

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Guest

I have also heard that those "baby" carrots have clorine on them!

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Barbara Branson

I figured out a long time ago that baby carrots weren't and had the nutrutional parts scraped away, ugh! I also don't peel carrots, just give them a perfunctory brushing or scraping. After all, vitamins are the reason for fresh food. When I make a stew I use carrots and pearl onions with the meat of my choice, in a slow cooker. The flavor is wonderful! Also, the small farm market of my choice picks their produce and sells it. No refrigeration to ruin the sweetnessof their tomatoes, and their cukes are not waxed and are perfect for pickling as is. Their corn comes right from the field as well. And their unrefrigerated peaches are out of this world!

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Guest

carrots were orignaly purple, They were altered by the dutch to be orange to honnor their roal house, that took off and gives us the orange carrot that we all have copme to know today

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Brittany

"Buy the slender, smaller versions (6-9 inches long), as the really big and thick carrots can be woody and tough."

Aha! That's what it is. See, as you were describing the taste of real carrots I thought back to the last time I had them raw, and was fairly unimpressed - to me at least, they hadn't tasted good at all. But I suspect I was eating large ones, and will definitely check out the selection of thin ones next time I'm at the grocery.

That said, I don't really have a problem with people who are willing to pay more for convenience. I know it doesn't sound like a huge inconvenience, but in my experience if you're already slightly resistant to something - say eating healthier - a small bit of inconvenience can be a powerful force. I think that's part of why people reach for junk food instead of healthier food, since often it's bought already in convenient one serving packages.

If you're trying to save money then definitely go for normal carrots, but if you know you will be more likely to eat carrots if they're already washed and peeled for you and you can afford it, then I say go for baby carrots instead. It's all about knowing yourself and your inclinations and priorities. Breaking bad habits is difficult, and sometimes you need a little help along the way.

Thank you so much for this post though - you can only make informed decisions about what's best for you if you have all the information, so this is incredibly useful.

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Jay Schafer

Your update is a blanket statement and is not true. An open pollinated Imperator might be have lower beta carotene content but are seldom used in the majority of cut and peeled carrots. Mostly F1 hybrids are now used which may be Imperator shape but vary by variety on their carotene and sugar content. The deeper orange carrots are more than twice the carotene value of OP Imperator and sometimes three times as high as most OP Nantes. The USDA and private plant breeders are continually improving carrot genetics to offer better products for the consumer.