Baby carrots the frugal idea thats isnt

by Andrea Karim on 15 May 2007 9 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. No, chances are that if you are looking for a healthy snack, you probably reach for a small baggie of baby carrots.

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 ten 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 boyfriend's for dinner. I cut off the tops, washed them, and handed one to my guy. 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 criticising 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:

  1. Buy the slender, smaller versions (6-9 inches long), as the really big and thick carrots can be woody and tough.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
Guest

Just a point of balance. At least here in the UK, some things sold as baby carrots are just that - either immature or small varieties of carrots - and not the cut-down large carrots. How can I be sure? Because they don't come smooth and pre-cleaned in a bag and you can see exactly what they are. But I totally agree with the points you make in your post.

Guest's picture
Jennywenny

I used to eat tons of them as they were very convenient. Then I started getting a CSA package and I remembered what real carrots taste like. I havent gone back since. I always take the trouble to peel regular carrots instead!

For the masses who seem to find it too inconvenient its nice to know they have a way of easily getting some vitamins...

Guest's picture
Alex!

Baby carrots are among the only vegetables I like to eat. I have severe food issues from my childhood. My evil grandmother would whip me with switches if I didn't eat vegetables. So I get physically ill when I taste most vegetables. Damn. What am I gonna eat now?

Guest's picture
Nika

I strive for frugality of the little f variety because I HAVE to, its not an affectation. Feeding a growing family of 5 can have some challenges for the food budget.

Anyone who has their eye on the price would know that baby carrots are not frugal. If you actually LOOK at them, and have a passing familiarity with whole carrots, you would be able to tell that they are remnants. No carrot grows this way. I grew some thumbelina carrots last year and they still had the morphology of a whole carrot (ie: the crown where the stems sprouted).

Now on the big F level, I do not see how using the scraps of gnarly carrots should be offensive to someone who would choose gnarly crooked off color organic carrots over supermodel carrots of the conventional variety.

I do not buy baby carrots because I am leary of any processed food. Baby carrots have been extensively modified and thus exposed to pathogens. To clean after that, you need to soak the poor things in "cleansers" (even if its dilute).

I also do not buy them because so often they are drying out and cracked.

One last reason to not binge on baby or any other carrots - lots of sugar.

It would be better to eat a few well chosen well grown happy hunky dorie locally grown supporting local farmers carrots than to have a binge-fest on "baby" carrots of unknown age, provenance, nutritional quality, and bland flavor.

To Alex: whipped? Yikes! You need a 12 step program to help you heal from that. Maybe force yourself to look at veggies in a more methodical and experimental way. Try to buy one new veggie and then fix it in a variety of ways until you find a prep method that makes your tastebuds sing. Then do the same with another and another. Go slow, take it easy, give yourself some slack.

Andrea Karim's picture

I was so delighted by baby carrots (the whittled down kind, not the real actual baby carrots) because they absolved me of work when I was younger. My mother used to like sliced carrots in the salad, and salad-making duties always fell to me. I would have to peel the carrots with this stupid rusty old peeler that was completely dull and impossible to use without cutting yourself.

So baby carrots were like a litle piece of heaven. Until I tried the real kind again, realizing that they didn't HAVE to be peeled. But if they were, they could also be peeled with a peeler that was manufactured sometime during the last, oh sya, 20 years.

Guest's picture
Guest

"I think we've become lousy consumers if we think that the shape of a carrot will affect its flavor."

Agreed. Truth is, almost everything we value in America is connected with appearance. It's a sad state of affairs, isn't it?

Guest's picture
Krupo

Economically it makes perfect sense for them to charge more for the baby carrots - they're 'processed', which is a 'value added' process. You always pay more for 'value added' items.

Of course you may not agree with their 'valuation'/cost, but then, you don't have to buy them either. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

I used to love baby carrots and always had a supply in the fridge. Recently they have less and less flavor. So this time at the grocery store I bought "regular" carrots. Still no flavor. Is there some kind of a carrot crop curse? Honestly I haven't tasted a good carrot in ages.

Guest's picture
m65

Anyone who has their eye on the price would know that baby carrots are not frugal. If you actually LOOK at them, and have a passing familiarity with whole carrots, you would be able to tell that they are remnants. No carrot grows this way. I grew some thumbelina carrots last year and they still had the morphology of a whole carrot (ie: the crown where the stems sprouted).

Now on the big F level, I do not see how using the scraps of gnarly carrots should be offensive to someone who would choose gnarly crooked off color organic carrots over supermodel carrots of the conventional variety.

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