Baby Carrots: The Frugal Idea That Isn't
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.
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:
- The desire for food that is uniform in appearance and taste.
- 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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