Hey, baby! What’s the story with the tiny, polished, nubby “baby” carrots you see at every grocery store these days? Do they come out of the ground like that or what?
Baby-cut carrots—those innocuous, crunchy, sometimes slippery little guys that are the rare veggie we can consistently persuade children to consume—are surprisingly polarizing. Some carrot lovers find them a poor, less-flavorful substitute for full-sized carrots. Others adore them and pack them into bags to go with hummus and dips. But what are they? We did a little digging.
Mike Yurosek, a California carrot farmer, “invented” baby carrots out of full-sized carrots in the mid-1980s. At the time, farmers weren’t able to sell veggies that were ugly, slightly too big or too small, or broken, and there was a ton of waste of edible produce—sometimes more than half a harvest. Frustrated, Yurosek used a potato peeler to make cutesy, two-inch long carrots. He included a bag of these “baby” carrots in his next delivery to his local grocer. The next day, as this USA Today story explains, the grocer called and told Yurosek they “only wanted those” from then on out.
Nowadays, as this Washington Post piece wonderfully details, these “baby” carrots dominate the industry, comprising about 70 percent of carrot sales. But let’s be clear on what they are: First, they’re not identical to actual tiny baby carrots—the small, frond-topped carrots that come right out of the earth. These are large carrots, bred specifically to be a bit sweeter, which are passed through a machine that peels them and chops them. They get a final polish, during which their ends are rounded, and into the bag they go.
Recently it’s come to light that these baby—more accurately called “baby-cut”—carrots get a dip in chlorine before being rinsed with water and going into their bags. That’s true, according to various sources, and it’s been confirmed by some farmers. However, those same farmers say that the chlorine dip—a fairly common antimicrobial process—is well within EPA guidelines.
If that troubles you, the solution is quite simple: Buy whole carrots. It doesn’t take long to peel them, their fronds are delicious when turned into pesto, they look gorgeous when they’re roasted, and in many parts of the country, right now is when they’re at their most beautiful. Look for purple and yellow carrots tucked alongside the orange ones, and if you see purple-and-pink “dragon carrots,” well, you just might be able to convince a kid to eat one of those, too.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.