Surprising: Originally carrots weren’t orange

It may surprise most people, but originally, carrots were not orange.

The modern, orange-colored carrot is actually a result of selective breeding by Dutch farmers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Prior to that, carrots came in a variety of colors, including white, yellow, red, and purple.

In fact, the earliest cultivated carrots were likely purple or white. Purple carrots contain anthocyanin pigments, which give them their distinctive color, while white carrots lack pigmentation altogether. Yellow and red carrots also exist naturally and contain different types of pigments, but they are less common than purple and white carrots.

Over time, people began selectively breeding carrots for certain traits, such as size, flavor, and color. The orange carrot was developed by Dutch farmers by selecting and breeding carrots with high levels of beta-carotene, which gives them their characteristic orange color. This was done to honor the House of Orange, the ruling family of the Netherlands at the time.

Today, the orange carrot is by far the most common variety, and the word “carrot” often refers specifically to the orange variety. However, there are still many other types of carrots, including heirloom varieties with a range of colors and flavors.

The reason for the orange color of carrots is a group of pigments called carotenoids, which include beta-carotene. These pigments give carrots their bright orange color and are an important source of Vitamin A, which is essential for maintaining good vision and a healthy immune system.

Interestingly, not everyone can use beta-carotene in carrots and other foods to produce vitamin A. Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid that converts into vitamin A in the body through a process that requires certain enzymes. Some people do not have enough of these enzymes, or their bodies cannot convert beta-carotene efficiently.

The Color Orange

You may wonder where the name for the color “orange” came from, given that it gave the name to the royal Dutch family and the color to the carrot.

The family, that is for sure, is named after the city of Orange in France, as it was the House of Orange-Nassau that inherited the throne.

The name of the city comes from the ancient Arausion or Arausio, which was already mentioned in the first century. It was known as Aurasice in 998, Aurengie in 1136, Aurenga in 1152, Orenga in 1205, and Orenge in 1606, and from there the name ‘Orange’ originated.

This information pertains to the city.

But (and here comes the “but”) – is the fruit “orange” called after the city? And is the color “orange” called after the fruit, the carrot, the king, or the city?

The tree of the house of Orange in this ancient lithography from Entrik & Dinger after J. M. Stalk, Schiedam (ca. 1874) uses oranges for the kings.

There is where the debate begins.

In ancient times, oranges were unknown to the Greeks and Romans. They only reached Europe in the Middle Ages, around the year 1000.

Some think that the word ‘orange’, used for the fruit, is a borrowing from the Persian ‘narang’. This Persian word was apparently borrowed itself from the Sanskrit word ‘naranga’, which appears around the year 100 in the Hindu medical treatise Charaka Samhita.

Others think that the fruit went up the Rhone to the town of Orange and was distributed from the river port of this town, hence the name “pomme d’Orange”, apple from Orange, was given to the product.

Maybe the two influenced each other? Who knows.

One thing is sure: The color was named after the fruit, and the first recorded use of orange as a color name in English is noted in 1512.

In a large part of Germany, the fruit is, by the way, called ‘Apfelsine’, an apple from China. So it seems the trading ports may well have given the name to the fruit.

Much like the guinea pig, which is named after Guinea in Africa (or perhaps after the price of a guinea coin), in French it’s called a ‘cochon d’Inde’ – a pig from India, and in German it’s simply called ‘Meerschwein’ – a pig from the sea, whichever one…

Originally carrots were not orange, as we know them today. The coulour comes from a royal house.
Wally Moes, Boy with Guinea Pig and carrots. 1882

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