The Real Reason Carrots Are Orange

How much do we love carrots? These candy-sweet root vegetables are incredibly versatile, adding a layer of flavor into the base of soups and stews, bringing crunch to a variety of salads, and even showing up in desserts like Indian halwa and carrot cake. But apart from their sweetness and crunch, the most recognizable feature of carrots is certainly their bright orange color. 

Although the veggies come in a variety of shades including white, red, and purple — orange carrots are the most well known color. So where does that bright hue come from? According to Mental Floss, scientists weren't able to adequately answer that question until recently. Back in 2016, a team of geneticists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison completed the first decoding of the carrot genome, publishing their results in the journal Nature. And according to Mental Floss, they discovered one particular gene that's responsible for the carrots' orange color.

Carrots' genetics explain their orange color

When a team of geneticists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to decode the carrot genome, they paid special attention to why the vegetables — whose original, pre-domestication shade was white — are most commonly orange (via Mental Floss). By analyzing the carrot's 32,115 genes, the geneticists discovered one — which they named DCAR_032551 — as being responsible for the orange color we see in most carrots today. Also referred to as the "Y gene," it led to an accumulation of orange and yellow carotenoid pigments in carrots, the scientists explained in their report

While carrot crops were first cultivated around 1,100 years ago, the majority weren't reliably orange until about 1500 C.E. (via Mental Floss). Over time, it seems that farmers selected for orange carrots, and though it's not clear why, they made a smart decision — orange carrots are healthier than their other-colored counterparts. "The popularity of orange carrots is fortuitous for modern consumers because the orange pigmentation results from high quantities of alpha- and beta-carotene, making carrots the richest source of provitamin A in the U.S. diet," the geneticists wrote. 

According to Healthline, vitamin A can help maintain healthy vision, boost the immune system, and reduce the risk of certain cancers. So there you have it, not only are orange carrots pretty to look at, they're also packed with nutrition — whether they're enjoyed in a fresh salad or an indulgent cake.