This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode How the Carrot Became Orange, and Other Stories, first released on November 6, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
COMMERCIAL: Carrots! Extreme, impossible stunt! Carrots!
CYNTHIA GRABER: I’ve eaten a lot of carrots in my day and they’ve never sounded quite as exciting or as explosive as they do in this commercial.
NICOLA TWILLEY: I’ve never really seen them as more than a vehicle for hummus, to be honest. But maybe I need to rethink. Turns out, the carrot is pretty wild.
GRABER: Literally. This is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode is all about our humble, orange friend, the carrot.
GRABER: First of all, it turns out that the carrot wasn’t always orange. How did it get to be this way?
TWILLEY: And what about all the fancy purple and yellow and white carrots you can buy at the market today—where did they come from, and are they any better than the ordinary orange ones?
GRABER: What about baby carrots, what are those? Are they just stunted tiny little carrots that never reached their full potential?
TWILLEY: Yes, the carrot has its mysteries. And this episode, we travel to Wisconsin—which is a state that grows a lot of carrots—to get to the bottom of them all.
GRABER: And speaking of Wisconsin, thanks again to Laura Heisler for inviting us to headline the Wisconsin Science Festival in Madison last month. It was great fun and a full house—we loved meeting all of you who came out to see us. And don’t forget you can catch us in Philly on November 16—all the info is at gastropod.com.
IRWIN GOLDMAN: This one looks a little more succulent—you want to try to like—should we cut that off?
GRABER: Yeah, let’s try to cut it off.
GOLDMAN: Let’s see if we can get some carrot flavor.
TWILLEY: You can smell it, though.
GRABER: Smells like earth to me. Oh yeah, no, I smell it. It has that kind of parsnip-y, carroty.
TWILLEY: Oh my god. Yeah.
TWILLEY: Picture Cynthia and me standing in a darkened shed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We’re with Irwin Goldman, who is a professor of carrots.
GRABER: And a carrot breeder. He’s officially a horticulturalist. And he’s one of the world’s experts on carrots. Irwin has been working on carrots for almost three decades.
TWILLEY: Like all of our food plants, the carrots we know and love today are quite different from their wild ancestors. And Irwin brought us to his carrot shed to give us a taste of what carrots used to be like, before humans started messing with them.
GOLDMAN: You know, I think a lot of people will be familiar with Queen Anne’s lace as a weed growing along the roadsides here in the Midwest, but actually it’s a ubiquitous weed. It grows everywhere in the world. It has a quite a beautiful cluster of flowers.
GRABER: Until I met Irwin, I didn’t know that Queen Anne’s lace is actually a wild carrot. It’s what carrots were like before they were carrots.
GRABER: Blech, yuck!
TWILLEY: It’s pretty bitter.
GOLDMAN: Yeah it is.
TWILLEY: Pretty bitter.
GRABER: It’s just kind of gross tasting and it’s really fibrous and you can’t really get your teeth around it.
TWILLEY: I feel like I’m gnawing on a piece of wood…
GOLDMAN: Right, exactly.
TWILLEY: …that doesn’t taste very good.
TWILLEY: So yeah, no thumbs up for Queen Anne’s Lace. Irwin had to hack away at the fibrous white roots to get a chunk we could each try. And, really, the flavor was not worth the effort.
GRABER: I couldn’t imagine eating anything like this, but maybe if those roots were boiled forever, which is probably how they would have originally been eaten? I have no idea.
TWILLEY: These wild carrots can be found everywhere now, but the carrot’s original home?
GOLDMAN: Well, we think they come from the mountains of Afghanistan and Central Asia.
GRABER: Irwin says that’s where the wild carrot originates, and it spread long before the domesticated carrot did.
TWILLEY: Philipp Simon is a USDA geneticist and a horticulturalist. His office is down the hall from Irwin at the University of Wisconsin. And he told us that even before people ate carrot roots, they thought the seeds and leaves were useful.
PHILIPP SIMON: Carrots were apparently consumed as a—probably—source of flavoring or more likely medicinal properties three to five thousand years ago, based on the evidence that there is carrot seed near camp sites of humans that long ago in Switzerland and Germany.
TWILLEY: Cultivating carrots for their root—which is the part we use almost exclusively today—that came much later.
GOLDMAN: I think the earliest domesticates, we believe, were purple-rooted and those made their way from Central Asia and made their way into countries like Turkey, where they were really a popular vegetable.
GRABER: It’s not totally clear exactly when this happened, but at some point people in what’s now Afghanistan found carrots that had a purple root instead of a white root.
TWILLEY: But how does a root go from white to purple?
GRABER: Irwin says we need to look at the Queen Anne’s lace flower for the clue.
GOLDMAN: Often it will have a little purple spot in the middle. And of course the legend is that Queen Anne pricked her finger making lace.
TWILLEY: That’s the fairytale, but in scientific terms, what that means is that the carrot plant already had the mechanism to make purple, for its flowers. And then somehow, through a genetic mutation, it started making purple pigments in its roots, too. And people liked these new purple roots.
GRABER: Phil said that women were typically the ones in charge of growing these kinds of crops and choosing ones that were a little sweeter, a little less fibrous, and so they were probably the ones who liked those first early purple carrots and chose them to plant, again and again.
TWILLEY: The purple coloring would have been handy—it meant our ancestors could easily tell the difference between these slightly less fibrous, slightly less bitter purple carrots and the white, wild, woody carrots that grew nearby.
GRABER: And over time, carrots kept on mutating and becoming even more colorful—probably around the same time as purple carrots, carrots also turned yellow.
TWILLEY: I should say, this is all pretty much speculative. Because we don’t really know a lot about the domesticated carrot’s earliest incarnations. Phil says that the earliest good documentation of a purple carrot comes about eleven hundred years ago, in Central Asia.
SIMON: But then as you move west especially through the Middle East and Turkey and then into North Africa, there are written records about purple and yellow carrots. And purple and yellow show up in that written record throughout the period up until about the early 1500s.
GRABER: Purple and yellow sound beautiful, yes, but those aren’t the carrots I grew up with. How did they become orange?
GOLDMAN: That’s the big question in the carrot world. LAUGHS. You know there’s two hypotheses
TWILLEY: If you have ever heard the story of how the carrot became orange, you will likely have heard hypothesis number one: it’s the Dutch. The story goes like this.
GOLDMAN: The prominent hypothesis comes from a scientist named Banga, who is a Dutch scientist who spent some wonderful time touring the great museums of Europe looking at market scenes. And he noticed that there were purple carrots and purple-yellow carrots in the marketplace or in still life paintings. and that those gradually became orange at a certain point in time around the 16th century, mid-16th century, depending on which painting you look at.
GRABER: So Banga came up with this theory in the 1950s: he believed that orange is a relatively recent carrot mutation. Orange carrots appeared in northern Europe, maybe even in Holland, and it was the Dutch that chose to breed and popularize those orange carrots in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds.
GOLDMAN: The Dutch are somewhat famous for their love of orange and the House of Orange and all, and so, you know, I think there’s something really nice about his hypothesis that seems to work.
TWILLEY: For those of you not steeped in Dutch history, the Dutch love of orange can be traced back to William of Orange. Orange is a town in the south of France. William, who came from Orange, led the Dutch in a revolt against the Spanish in the 1500s, which led to The Netherlands finally becoming an independent country.
GRABER: I admit I am mostly familiar with the Dutch love of orange from their World Cup jerseys. But it’s clear, they love it. And the Dutch traditionally grew a lot of carrots. So this story seems nice and pat, the Dutch found an orange mutation of the carrot, and they just bred that mutation like mad. But maybe this story is a little too pat?
TWILLEY: Phil Simon brings us theory number 2 on when and where the carrot turned orange.
SIMON: the earliest orange carrots that show up in artwork are out of Spain and Italy and then very soon after in Germany. And so carrots move from the Middle East to North Africa and then over into southern Europe. And so as they got into southern Europe around late 1400s, early 1500s—that’s when orange carrots first show up in artwork.
GRABER: Irwin agrees with Phil—he thinks that probably that first orange mutation occurred before it showed up in Dutch artwork. He does think that even if the Dutch didn’t discover the mutation, they probably did fall in love with that orange carrot and focused their growing efforts on it. So maybe they are the ones who led to the eventual orange takeover?
TWILLEY: As we speak, Irwin is working on using genetics to get to the bottom of this mystery, although he says that conclusively establishing the date and place when this orange mutation occurred is going to be hard.
GRABER: In any case, the orange carrot won. At least by the 1980s, when Phil started working on carrots, it was—
SIMON: Orange and orange and orange.
TWILLEY: But today when I go to the store, or to the farmer’s market, I can and I do buy purple carrots and yellow carrots and orange carrots and white carrots. All the colors.
GRABER: But these other colors didn’t just re-appear out of thin air, or come out from hiding. They’re basically the original carrots, but they had pretty much disappeared from the marketplace in the U.S. and Europe for centuries. There has to be some story here. Why’d they come back?
TWILLEY: Kind of by accident, it turns out.
SIMON: We were looking at the genetics of color, and, as we were doing this work on genetics of color, we crossed some purple carrots from eastern Turkey with some orange carrots in my breeding program.
GRABER: Phil and his colleagues were interested in whether these colored carrots might have useful qualities that he could breed into orange carrots. Maybe the purple carrot could help Phil breed sturdier, more disease-resistant orange carrots, for instance.
SIMON: I wasn’t initially trying to make it delicious. No. We were only looking at it from the standpoint of understanding the genetics of it. But, as we got going on this, there was some rumbling in the small-scale agriculture that there could be some interest in going back to these heirloom type of crops.
TWILLEY: This was in the early 90s. And there were a couple of things going on that made America ready for purple carrots. First, of all there was some hype about antioxidants.
SIMON: As we were moving along with that research, there was research in the nutritional sciences indicating that, hey, these purple pigments have a health benefit.
GRABER: The other thing that was changing in the early 90s? Farmers markets started to become far more popular. And small-scale growers wanted something new, something colorful to attract people to their stands. So one of Phil’s colleagues brought some purple carrots to Pike’s Place market in Seattle—
SIMON: And people were interested in them.
TWILLEY: Cautiously interested.
SIMON: He had slices these purple carrots and orange and yellow ones and he said that kids would pretty much readily taste them all. But he said some adults—not all—but some adults would pick up that purple carrot and then put it back down. They’d say I can’t eat that, that’s not the right color for carrots.
GRABER: But they did eventually try them, and the purple carrot started, slowly, to become more popular.
TWILLEY: Slowly. I mean, I wasn’t eating purple carrots in the 90s, I know that. Admittedly I was in England, which maybe wasn’t at the cutting edge in terms of carrot color..
GRABER: I wasn’t eating purple carrots in the 90s either, I really only started maybe some time the last decade?
TWILLEY: But the purple carrot renaissance isn’t just thanks to Phil—across the country, breeders were starting to develop new versions of these old colored carrots. Irwin remembers one of his colleagues, a guy called Leonard at Texas A&M, getting into purple too.
GOLDMAN: And he made a carrot actually that was purple on the outside and kind of yellowish on the inside. And he started to go to farmers’ markets to try to see if he could get people interested in it. And nobody recognized it as a carrot. So it’s really within this period of time that I’ve been working, the last 25 years, I don’t know, that there’s been an explosion of colors.
GRABER: And then there’s one carrot color that I haven’t yet seen around my farmers markets—a bright red carrot.
GOLDMAN: Which is more of an exotic color for carrots in United States, I would say, but is quite popular in Japan and China where the red carrot is used for new year’s ceremonies particularly or other special ceremonies. Red being a lucky color.
TWILLEY: Red carrots today are like purple carrots in the 90s. All the cool carrot breeders are working on them.
GOLDMAN: We’ve been breeding red. I’ve got some red carrots from Japan and China and we started breeding red carrots.
GRABER: But so far it hasn’t been going so well for Irwin with his red carrots.
GOLDMAN: Those are very, very poor tasting. They are really like—it’s been very depressing to me to not be able to break the linkage between the bitterness in the red carrot and the color itself.
GRABER: Phil’s had more luck. It still took him a while to crack the red carrot, because his new breeds started flowering too soon, and that meant the roots weren’t as sweet.
TWILLEY: But now he thinks he’s nailed it. So keep your eyes peeled for red carrots coming to a farmers market near you!
SIMON: Yeah, we are going to be releasing a couple of red carrots. I’m working closely with the Organic Seed Alliance.
GRABER: In fact some of you may have even seen red carrots released by other breeders already! These colors are beautiful and I can totally get why breeders love them and farmers who lay out their carrots at the markets love them. But is there any practical benefit, any reason I should choose a purple carrot over an orange one—like, is it better for me? Does one taste better than the other? Or is it all just for show?
TWILLEY: I am so glad you asked, Cynthia, because that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about next. Plus we’ll get into whether there’s any truth to the old wives’ tale about carrots being good for your eyesight.
TWILLEY: So, to answer your question, Cynthia, we need to get scientific about carrot taste evaluation.
SIMON: So we’ve done quite a bit of work on flavor and we categorize carrot flavor into only two categories. One is sweetness and that’s pretty obvious. And the other is what we call harshness, which most people would tend to call bitterness.
GRABER: These harsh flavors that Phil’s talking about, they come from chemicals called turpenoids.
SIMON: Some of the same compounds that account for things like the odor of pine needles. In fact hops flavor has turpenoids is in it. And, if you have too much of those chemicals in carrots, they’re very what we call harsh. If you have a lower amount then it’s a normal well-rounded carrot flavor, if it’s balanced with sweetness. And if you have too little, it doesn’t even taste like a carrot.
TWILLEY: Okay, so does one color carrot have more of these turpenoids than another? Or is one color always more sweet than the others?
GRABER: Phil says all colors of carrots basically taste the same—
SIMON: I mean they don’t all taste the same because not all orange carrots taste the same. But we’ve had a lot of debate within our group—should we say they all taste the same? They all taste like orange carrots, they have that same range of flavor.
TWILLEY: So the long and the short of it is that the color of a carrot has nothing to do with how it tastes. But does it have to do with how good it is for you?
GRABER: You all might have already heard about what carrots are most famous for—they have huge amounts of something called beta carotene.
GOLDMAN: In fact, a very, very small amount of a carrot is enough for your RDI for vitamin A. So it’s just really quite impressive.
TWILLEY: Beta carotene is literally named after carrots, because that’s where scientists first isolated it. And beta carotene is the raw material for Vitamin A. Your body converts beta carotene into the Vitamin A that you need for a whole bunch of things—your skin, your eyes, your immune system, reproduction—basically, to stay alive.
GRABER: Carrots are particularly known for their vision-boosting properties—you might have heard that eating a lot of carrots will help you see in the dark.
TWILLEY: Yeah. So this particular lie comes courtesy of my people, the British. Carrots are definitely important for eyesight—your eyes need Vitamin A. But seeing in the dark? No. What happened was that during World War 2, the Royal Air Force got the upper hand over the Germans thanks to two innovations—radar, which you know, helped them track the German planes, and also red lighting in the cockpit, which helped not blind the pilots.
GRABER: But the Brits didn’t want the Germans to know about their new, super high-tech advantages in the war. And they wanted to divert the Germans from all the new radar towers that were popping up along the coast. So instead, they spread the story that all these night flying pilots that were shooting down the Germans planes so well? They were finding their targets because—they ate a lot of carrots.
TWILLEY: To be fair, thanks to rationing, the British were eating a lot of carrots at the time—carrots were taking the place of sugar in a lot of desserts. But, yes, we lied. I’m sorry.
GRABER: And helped the Allies win the war. So, you know, thanks for lying.
TWILLEY: What makes this whole thing even more bizarre is the fact carrots have beta carotene at all is kind of a mistake.
GOLDMAN: First of all, all plants need beta carotene and they all have beta carotene in their foliage. So every green plant—grass, trees, everything—is full of beta carotene in its foliage. And you can see that beta carotene in the fall when the chlorophyll starts to degrade.
GRABER: The green chlorophyll masks the other colors in leaves. But when fall comes and the days shorten and the temperature drops, the green fades away, and you get to see all the beautiful beta carotene. Otherwise known as yellow and red and orange leaves.
TWILLEY: The leaves have all this orange in them because it’s their sunscreen. Beta carotene basically protects the leaf from sun damage.
GRABER: But it’s really weird that a colored chemical that protects leaves from the sun would show up in the roots! It was clearly a genetic mutation, a mistake. I mean, the roots are underground and never see the sunlight.
GOLDMAN: And yet, because they’re attractive and because people like the way they looked, they built up in root tissue through selection. And we therefore had colored, pigmented carrots. And so the fact that we get an incredible nutritional benefit from it as well as the visual appeal is just a beautiful thing.
GRABER: That nutritional benefit has recently become even more incredible. Breeders like Irwin and Phil have been mixing up the genetic material of carrots by breeding them—and they’ve managed something amazing. They’ve been able to pack even more beta carotene into these little beta carotene vessels in carrot cells.
TWILLEY: Fifty percent more.
GOLDMAN: It’s really amazing if you look at a modern carrot—the amount of beta carotene that’s present in the root is so abundant that it is in crystalline form. It’s almost as though it’s overstuffed.
TWILLEY: These orange pigments—the beta carotene—they’re also in all the cool multi-color purple and yellow carrots, too. But do those purple and yellow guys have other pigments with equally awesome health benefits? Which would maybe make them better for you than plain old orange?
GRABER: Well, so all the carrots have carotenoids, and of course carotenoids are great. All except the white carrots, that is. But the other colors, the red, the yellow, the purple, those do have some other chemicals. Red, for instance, it has lycopene, that’s the same chemical in a tomato.
GOLDMAN: The purple color is anthocyanin and anthocyanins are ubiquitous, you know. They’re in lots of fruits. They’re the color of the blueberries, for example, and they’re thought to be really strong antioxidants.
GRABER: Irwin says that the jury’s still out about how important antioxidants are for us, the science is going back and forth.
TWILLEY: But while we wait for the jury here, maybe purple carrots are the best? All that carotene and some groovy anthocyanins too? Or maybe the red ones with lycopene? Are they better than orange?
GOLDMAN: You know, I don’t think so. I don’t think that any one’s healthier than the other. I think the modern carrot today, the modern Western carotene carrot which is going to have lutein, beta carotene, alpha carotene in it, is extremely healthy.
GRABER: In short, they’re all carrots. They’re all great.
GOLDMAN: And I would focus more on how you cook it. And let me explain. The carotenoids are fat soluble, so they they will be much more bio-available if you have lipids in your diet. Maybe this is the argument for carrot cake. I don’t know. Probably it should be, right? That it has frosting, it’s got fat in it.
TWILLEY: Heck yeah carrot cake! Which is my favorite, and also a surprisingly recent invention—we wanted to tell that story this episode but we ran out of room, so we had to save it for our special supporters email. You can get that email if you support gastropod with $5 an episode on patreon or $9 a month on our website, gastropod.com.
GRABER: But to get back to cooking with carrots—cooking actually frees up more beta carotene, too. Cooking, and eating them with fats gets the most beta carotene. But then what about raw carrots?
GOLDMAN: I’m not saying people should stay away from fresh carrot because fresh carrot is great. I eat them all the time, like I have one with my lunch almost every day and I love it. It’s a great, crunchy vegetable. And there’s nothing wrong with it because you’re going to get a lot of beta carotene from that too.
TWILLEY: Obviously, Irwin is biased. He is a mega carrot fan. But are there any dangers to carrot consumption?
GOLDMAN: You know, the only one that that I’ve ever known about is one that you can get from particularly from carrot juice. I think it would be difficult to get it from raw or cooked carrot. But the phenomenon is called hypercarotenemia and hypercarotenemia is when your skin turns orange. You literally turn orange from eating too much carotenoid.
TWILLEY: This I had actually heard of because as a pasty, sun-deprived schoolgirl in England, the rumor was that eating lots of carrots would give you an attractive tan. I didn’t have the carrot commitment to actually test this out myself.
GRABER: I can assure you that the color is not actually that attractive. And you can indeed get it from eating raw carrots, not just drinking juice—I had a friend in college who ate so many bags of raw baby carrots that the skin of her palms turned this weird orange color.
GOLDMAN: But the good news about this is that there is no danger at all. There’s no health risk of hypercarotenemia aside from the social stigma of walking around as an orange person.
TWILLEY: Enough said.
GRABER: Great, good to know my friend didn’t do any lasting harm. But her story brings up another question: What are baby carrots?
TWILLEY: Are these carrots that we rip from Mother Earth’s arms too young? Are they yet another thing we ought to feel guilty about?
GRABER: We do have the answer, after a word from one more sponsor this episode.
TWILLEY: So far, we’ve talked a lot about carrot color. But carrots have other facets to their personality, too.
GOLDMAN: I would say the thing that sticks out most for you right away if you pull them up is the market classes— the shapes of carrot. And this is an interesting thing about carrot is that, depending on where you go in the world, there are accepted shapes of roots. So there are the Kurota carrots, for example, which is really, really popular in most of Asia. It’s a very sort of more triangular shaped carrot. If you go to parts of France and—well, many parts of Europe—you’ll see a carrot that looks more like a tube, It has a blunt tip and it’s called a Nantes type of carrot.
GRABER: Irwin says there are about 10 different shapes out there in the market. But what about baby carrots?
GOLDMAN: Baby carrots are both a blessing and a curse, I think, in the carrot universe. When I started this work, there weren’t baby carrots. They weren’t on the market.
TWILLEY: The time is the 1980s. The place is California. And the hero is a carrot farmer called Mike Yurosek. He sold his carrots under the brand Bunny Luv—LUV. Which you can still see in the stores today.
SIMON: He brought some broken carrots home, and I don’t know if it was him or his wife. But anyway somebody said well we should see if we can figure out what to do with these broken carrots, because we have to throw them away otherwise, if they’re bent or just didn’t grow long enough or ran into rock or hard place.
GRABER: Just like they are now, supermarkets then were super particular about carrots. Any ones that weren’t just the right length, shape, and color were basically just tossed out.
TWILLEY: Which was frustrating to Mike. So he wondered, what would happen if he took these misshapen carrots, and trimmed them down into smaller, prettier carrot bites. So he experimented. He trimmed some down into one-inch carrot chunks that he called Bunny Balls. Which you do not find in the stores today.
GRABER: But Mike also came up with another option—these were two inches long.
GOLDMAN: And I think they started by sanding off and rounding off the edges and making a little thing that looked —you know, that looked like a little baby carrot, but was in fact a big carrot that had been cut up into slugs. And that’s actually the industry term for them is slugs.
TWILLEY: Mmm. Slugs. But these slugs—called by the more consumer friendly name of baby carrots—they caught on.
SIMON: Initially these throwaway carrots were the ones used for baby carrots and very soon the growers got to saying, let’s forget about about using throwaways, let’s just grow these, because we can make three times as much from them. But almost half the carrots sold are baby carrots because apparently the effort of cutting and peeling a carrot is really huge.
GRABER: Phil and Irwin have been in the factories where they turn long skinny carrots into baby ones.
TWILLEY: It’s kind of an amazing thing to see—you can find videos online and we’ve got a link on our website.
SIMON: They basically roll them uphill over stainless steel rollers with grit on them and that peels them. It’s a very fascinating process to see those baby carrots come out of the other end of the line and it’s just a river of orange. It’s really fun.
GOLDMAN: And so then you’ve got this product that looks like a baby carrot and is quite beautifully orange and uniform and you put it into a plastic bag and you can use it as a snack.
GRABER: So baby carrots aren’t one of Irwin’s market shapes, of course. But it turns out that they have actually changed the shape of the carrots that are grown in the field.
TWILLEY: One of the ten commercial shapes grown today is a long skinny carrot called the Imperator.
GOLDMAN: And when the baby carrot came along the goal then became to grow a very long Imperator. And I’m talking here about something that’s almost maybe 14-16 inches long. And it—it really is grown at extremely high density. If you were growing carrots in Wisconsin you might grow them at say, 300,000 plants per acre. If you were growing baby carrots in California for a baby carrot pack, you might grow them at two million plants per acre. So it’s like growing—you know, they’re almost growing like pencils right next to each other to make a very very long thin thing that can then be tumbled and cut into it into chunks.
GRABER: Baby carrots have changed the economics of carrots, too.
SIMON: You and I are willing to pay three times as much per pound for them as whole carrots and so it’s been good for the carrot industry because it doesn’t cost them that much to make the baby carrots.
TWILLEY: It doesn’t cost them that much, they sell them for more, and… thanks to the baby carrot, we are all eating more carrots. In just the first year after the baby carrot was introduced in 1986, carrot consumption in the U.S. went up by around 30 percent.
GRABER: But then baby carrots got another boost.
TWILLEY: A company called Bolthouse Farms had bought Mike Yurosek’s company.
TIFFANY ROLFE: And so they came to us, talked to us about really kind of encouraging, getting, you know, younger people to eat more carrots.
TWILLEY: This is Tiffany Rolfe. She is in the advertising biz. She is currently chief creative officer at Co Collective. But she used to be in charge of creative at Crispin Porter Bogusky. It’s a big agency—they’ve done work for Mini Cooper, for Ikea, for Burger King. At first, Tiffany’s colleagues thought that carrot must be a code-name for a big client—like there was no way Crispin was really working on a campaign for carrots!
GRABER: But they were. So Bolthouse Farms had originally approached twenty other ad agencies before they met up with the team at Crispin, but they weren’t psyched about the campaigns those other companies came up with.
TWILLEY: I mean, there were fun ideas. One company had a baby carrot army storming a beach defended by junk food. Another had a carrot attacking a jelly doughnut, with the red jelly oozing out like a wound.
GRABER: At the end of the day, though, these ideas were all positioning carrots against junk food, basically telling people that you should eat carrots to be healthy.
TWILLEY: But health wasn’t selling. Especially not to kids. It’s not sexy.
GRABER: Tiffany’s company had done some previous work targeted at kids and they’d learned from that.
ROLFE: I had been a creative director on the Truth Campaign, which was you know to help bring down smoking in teenagers. And you know typical approaches in the past have been scare tactics.
GRABER: Tactics like—cigarettes can kill you. That didn’t work. And it didn’t work partly because teenagers saw smoking as a way of rebelling.
ROLFE: Our approach in that case was, like, let’s give them something else to rebel against.
TWILLEY: Tiffany’s idea was, let’s show the teens how they’re being manipulated by Big Tobacco, and let them rebel against that instead.
ROLFE: And that campaign worked to—actually, you know, more than any campaign in history—to decrease teen smoking.
GRABER: And so that gave Tiffany an idea. This time, she’d look at how teens are being manipulated by big junk food. Like Doritos.
ROLFE: At the end of the day it’s a, you know, over-processed corn triangle that has been marketed enough to make it seem much more exciting than it really is. And we can play that game too.
TWILLEY: So Tiffany and her team dissected exactly how all this over-processed corn was being sold to kids.
ROLFE: And our intent was to go more after the snackable baby carrot variety. Like, that wasn’t part of the brief, it was just carrots broadly, but we believed that the easier, snackable baby carrot was the carrot to lean into. And so we held up I think at one point a cheese puff and a bright orange baby carrot. And they kind of had a similar shape and even the orange from the carrot was brighter. And we sort of bit into a carrot and it was really crunchy and even crunchier then than the cheese puff.
GRABER: Tiffany and her team came up with a plan to market carrots basically just like a cheese puff.
TWILLEY: But with an edge. It’s like meta-cheese puff.
ROLFE: We wanted the self-awareness to be there, a bit of a jujitsu move. And so we had to be a bit more overt with it. We didn’t want to look like, oh, look, baby carrots is trying to be cool or wannabe and they’re copying. We wanted it to be very, very clear that it’s about exposing and sort of you know like being aware of what we were doing and we were on to the tricks.
GRABER: And then Tiffany took this plan to Bolthouse Farms.
ROLFE: And the more we revealed—and some of it was sort of crazy—it’s like you could see sort of the energy in the room, them kind of feeling like Wow, whoa, this is this is sort of exactly what we wanted, but like nothing we expected.
TWILLEY: Bolthouse Farms gave Tiffany the green light. And then the fun began.
ROLFE: And it’s funny because we were doing crazy things like—you know we were in a shopping cart and pushing the shopping cart off the edge of the cliff and shooting baby carrots like into the air and yelling “extreme baby carrots!” and then a pterodactyl flies through the air and eats a baby carrot. And it almost was like we couldn’t make it crazy enough. And we did one that was this futuristic version of baby carrots. And then we had this sort of luxurious sexy version of baby carrots.
GRABER: This is just like the Lindt chocolate ad we played in our chocolate episode! It sounded like you were about to get it on with the truffle. I love that they’re totally making fun of those kind of sex sells ads while still using sex to sell baby carrots.
TWILLEY: But the rebrand went beyond ads. The baby carrot needed new everything.
ROLFE: And so when we looked at—just like opened up our plastic bag of baby carrots that you had to kind of pull apart and it was kind of wet inside—didn’t feel that fun.
GRABER: So they researched other bag options.
ROLFE: And so we found a material that gave us kind of a chip bag quality.
TWILLEY: They switched up where the baby carrots showed up in the store— no more boring virtuous produce section. They even got these snack bags full of baby carrots into vending machines in schools—alongside the Doritos! They did everything Doritos does.
ROLFE: You know, so we did things like create the first mobile game that you could play by the crunch of a carrot. And we tested it against other chips that weren’t loud enough.
GRABER: They only rolled it out in a few cities, but, unsurprisingly, national reporters loved this campaign. It made the front page of The New York Times. Even Michelle Obama loved the idea of marketing carrots like junk food. That was the slogan Crispin came up with—”Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food.”
ROLFE: So it became a much bigger initiative than actually what you know we ended up investing in it initially to help get it to be thought of as this idea and spread.
TWILLEY: Those ads aren’t still around, the cool packaging isn’t either, but the baby carrot sales—they went up, across the country, and they’re still way up. Carrot consumption in America has more than doubled since the baby carrot first came along. And, today, 70 percent of those carrots? They’re baby carrots.
GRABER: And even though they’re back in the boring thin plastic bags, you can find baby carrots today in vending machines. Right next to Doritos.
TWILLEY: So all of this is amazing, right? But I am a cynical and hardened soul, and there has to be a downside to the baby carrot success story. What about all the waste from cutting out those baby slugs from the big carrot?
IRWIN: It was amazingly efficient. I have to say that there is a little bit of waste but I wouldn’t say that that waste is any different than the waste you’d have here cutting up carrots for dicing and slicing. So it is efficient. You could argue also that from a nutritional point of view maybe people ate less other things and they ate more vegetables. That’s great.
GRABER: But, if Irwin has a choice, he’s not going to go for baby carrots.
GOLDMAN: The downside to me is that these are not the most flavorful carrots.
TWILLEY: Irwin says the Imperator is just not the tastiest of carrot varieties in the first place. But also, the processing—the way the slugs are shaped—that actually also destroys some of the carrot’s nutrients and flavor.
GOLDMAN: And the sugar is right under the skin. So sometimes when you peel it, you peel off the very best part of the carrot. So.
GRABER: Plus, frankly, baby carrots are a little damp and maybe a little slimy when you first open the bag, and then they quickly dry out in the fridge.
GOLDMAN: And, also, they’re expensive. I mean if you think about you know buying bulk carrots and taking them home and washing them and peeling them—I always felt like how much work is that really? That said, I don’t want to be too critical of it because ultimately I’m really interested in people eating more vegetables and so I kind of feel like, well, this was a really creative way to get people to eat more vegetables.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Irwin Goldman, Phil Simon, and Tiffany Rolfe. We have links to them and their work on our website at gastropod.com.
GRABER: Thanks again to Laura Heisler for bringing us out to Madison, Wisconsin, for the Wisconsin Science Festival—that’s also why we could taste Irwin’s delicious carrots, and his not-so-delicious wild carrots, in person! We have photos on our website, gastropod.com
TWILLEY: We’re back with a special bonus episode in just one week! So stay tuned.
GOLDMAN: Let’s look at these [RUSTLING SOUNDS] these are just harvested from that organic field. This is Bolero. This is the most popular variety in the United States for organic carrot production. And it’s beautiful. And they taste really nice. Is it good? It’s sweet, isn’t it? Yeah, that’s really nice.