In March 2008, we began receiving an e-mailed heads-up cautioning consumers that what we call “baby carrots” are actually deformed (crooked) regular carrots that have been whittled down and marinated in chlorine:
The “cute” cocktail carrots that you buy in grocery stores come from deformed crooked big carrots. They are put through a machine to become small cocktail carrots. This part everyone knows.
After they are cut to size they are soaked in large vats of water mixed with chlorine to preserve them. The same chlorine you use for your swimming pools and laundry. The reason for this is because they don’t have the protection of the skin so they use a good amount of chlorine.
Notice that after you have stored them in the fridge for a while, a white film forms on them… it’s the chlorine coming to the surface.
At what cost do we risk our health to have aesthetically presentable VEGGIES? Well Folks… I think after reading this we will all start making our own carrot sticks out of fresh carrots and keep them in the fridge (a few at a time), right?
It is true some food products labeled as baby carrots are made by cutting down larger roots, and that these items can be treated with chlorine during processing. However, it’s not true there’s anything wrong with the larger carrots they’re made from, or that the resultant vegetables reach consumers in a chlorine-soaked state.
Most “baby-cut” versions are no longer made from imperfect larger carrots, although the motivation for the invention of this product was an initial desire to find a use for standard-sized carrots that otherwise would have had to be discarded:
Prior to the mid-1980s, broken and misshaped carrots were discarded, leaving some farmers with as little as 30 percent of their crop to take to stores. Tired of throwing away perfectly good food, California carrot farmer Mike Yurosek took the carrots and used a potato peeler to reshape them into small pieces more suitable for quick munching. Yurosek purchased an industrial green bean cutter to quickly whittle the carrots into the familiar 2-inch portions we still see today — and their popularity took off.
The carrots now used to make “baby-cut carrots” are typically ones that have been specially bred to contain more sugar than their standard-sized cousins, because this extra sweetness appeals more strongly to children. Likewise, their bright orange color has also been bred into them, as has the evenness of that color all the way through the root:
Most baby carrots sold in U.S. supermarkets are really what the industry calls “baby cuts” — made from longer carrots that have been peeled and cut into a smaller size. These carrots have been specifically bred to be smaller in diameter, coreless and sweeter than regular carrots.
Bob Borda, a spokesman for Grimmway Farms, the world’s largest carrot grower (it handles 10 million pounds every day), says that over the years the company has developed a hybrid that combines the best qualities from over 250 known commercial varieties.
“Naturally, you breed carrots to get the sweetest flavor and crunch,” he said.
As an antimicrobial treatment to minimize or reduce the contamination of the finished product, cocktail carrots can be treated with chlorine. Those that are so treated are subsequently rinsed with potable water to remove the excess chlorine before packaging:
In order to create thinner vegetables, baby carrots are planted closer together than traditional carrots. In as little as 120 days from planting, the carrots are dug up and trucked to the processing house to be cut and peeled. But before packaging, all carrots receive a brisk scrub accompanied by a chlorine bath.
Wait, what? Chlorine, you say, as in the same chemical you put in your pools?
Grimmway Farms uses a chlorine solution on all its carrots — organic and non-organic — to prevent food poisoning, before a final wash in water. Grimmway says the chlorine rinse is well within limits set by the EPA and is comparable to levels found in tap water.
Ashley Bade, nutritionist and founder of Honest Mom Nutrition, says the chlorine bath is a standard practice in many pre-cut food items. “The chlorine-water solution is a needed step in the process to limit the risk of food-borne illnesses such as E.coli,” she says.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the use of chlorine as an antimicrobial treatment is a current accepted practice in the processing for all fresh-cut ready-to-eat vegetables (see Section 4.4).
As for the “white film” the e-mailed alert claims is the “chlorine coming to the surface,” that white blush is caused by dehydration of the cut surface — were you to pull a carrot from your own garden, slice it in half and place it in your refrigerator, it too would manifest that same whitish appearance on the cut portion once the carrot dried out a bit. Cocktail carrots are more prone to develop this only because their entire surface area is a cut surface. To keep cocktail carrots from drying out, store them at low temperature and in a high relative humidity environment.
“Baby-cuts” are part of a sharp upsurge in the carrot’s popularity in the U.S. Between 1970 and 1986, Americans ate 6 pounds of carrots per person per year. However, American consumption of carrots began to take off in 1987, and by 2002 it had reached 11 pounds per person. Baby carrot products are now among the most popular produce items in the supermarket aisle, have surpassed potatoes and celery, according to a 2007 USDA report.
To make “baby-cuts,” large sweet carrots are machine cut into 2-inch sections, then abraded (scraped) down to size, their ends rounded by the same process:
- In the field, two-story carrot harvesters use long metal prongs to open up the soil, while rubber belts grab the green tops and pull. The carrots ride up the belts to the top of the picker, where an automated cutter snips off the greens.
- They’re trucked to the processing plant, where they’re put in icy water to bring their temperature down to 37 degrees to inhibit spoiling.
- They are sorted by thickness. Thin carrots continue on the processing line; the others will be used as whole carrots, juice, or cattle feed. An inspector looks for rocks, debris or malformed carrots that slip through.
- The carrots are shaped into 2-inch pieces by automated cutters. An optical sorter discards any piece that has green on it.
- The pieces are pumped through pipes to the peeling tanks. The peelers rotate, scraping the skin off the carrots. There are two stages: an initial rough peel and then a final “polishing.”
- The carrots are weighed and bagged by an automated scale and packager, then placed in cold storage until they are shipped.
Generally, consumers can determine whether small carrots are true baby carrots or not by looking at what’s listed on the packaging. Labels that say “baby carrots” appear on packages of very young carrots that are harvested while the vegetables are still quite tiny. Labels that proclaim “baby-cut carrots” appear on packages of petite carrots made by chopping down and polishing much larger versions of the vegetable.
Fishman, Charles. “Baby, Maybe.”
Fast Company. May 2004 (p. 40).
McCarthy, Sky. “The Truth Behind Baby Carrots.”
Fox News. 7 January 2014.
Weise, Elizabeth. “Digging the Baby Carrot.”
USA Today. 11 August 2004.
TechMan. “With Food, Trust Us, Low-Tech is Better.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 1 July 2007 (p. F6).
San Antonio Express-News. “Q&A.”
21 April 2004 (p. F2).