Carrot Colours

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Carrot Colours - The Pigment Power of Carrots

Circle of Carrots

Photo compliments of USDA Agricultural Research Service, where researchers have selectively bred carrots with pigments that reflect almost all colours of the rainbow. More importantly, though, they are very good for your health. Photo by Stephen Ausmus, USDA.

The individual colours of carrots (except orange) have their own pages select the colour you wish to know more about. The coloured carrots are grown the same way as orange ones. They are all basically the same plant.

Simply read, understand and follow the instructions on the seed packet.

purple - black - white - yellow - red - Seed suppliers here

Unique properties of each colour - Carotenoid/Sugar content - Why orange carrots are orange - Factors Affecting the Colour of Carrots

NEWS! - Full Carrot Genome sequenced -

Often the evolutionary history of a species can be found in a fossil record; other times, DNA and genetic fingerprints replace rocks and imprints. That is the case for the carrot, the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet, whose full genetic code has recently been deciphered by a team led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison in collaboration with the University of California, Davis.

May 2016 - Scientists have unveiled the gene in carrots that gives rise to carotenoids, a critical source of Vitamin A and the pigment that turns some fruits and vegetables bright orange or red. The new, high-quality genome assembly, which the researchers established for an orange doubled-haploid carrot (Nantes variety), contains more than 32,000 predicted protein-coding genes - more than humans!

 As the researchers reported  they were able to track down a candidate gene involved in orange carrot pigmentation and gained insight into the evolution of plants in the euasterid II lineage, which contains carrots, lettuce, sunflower, celery, and parsley. Read more here.

Looking back at the plant’s family tree, the researchers have been able to determine that it split with the grape about 113 million years ago and from the kiwi about 10 million years after that.

The research team traced carrot evolution as far back as the dinosaurs. Sometime between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods - roughly around the time dinosaurs went extinct - carrots, along with other plants of the era, picked up genetic advantages that allowed them to thrive in differing environmental conditions.

Botanical names - Basically colour alone is not a reason for taxonomic differences i naming.There is no distinction between the various colours as far as proper botanical names are concerned.

Carrots come in two main varieties - Western (orange/yellow/white) and Eastern (red/ purple/ black) The name for every Western variety is Daucus carota subspecies sativus. Eastern varieties are Daucus carota subspecies atrorubens.

The Colour Map: What do we know about the nutritional value of coloured carrots? The colour of yellow, orange and red carrots is the result of certain carotenoid pigments present in the root. These carotenoids can be divided into hydrocarbon pigments or carotenes and oxygenated pigments or xanthophylls.

Xanthophylls, similar to beta-carotene, give yellow carrots their golden colours; they are linked to eye health and may reduce the incidence of lung and other cancers.

Lycopene, found in red carrots, is a type of carotene also found in tomatoes. It is believed to help prevent heart disease and, in conjunction with other phytochemicals, reduce the risk of certain cancers, including prostate cancer.

Anthocyanins and pigments of the flavonoid (as opposed to carotenoid) class are found in purple carrots. In the human body these pigments act as powerful antioxidants, immobilizing harmful free radicals. Anthocyanins can also help reduce the risk of heart disease by slowing blood clotting.

White carrots lack pigment but may contain other beneficial phytochemicals. More research is needed.

Lutein is one of the hydroxy carotenoids found in yellow and orange carrots and makes up the macular pigment of human retinas. Consuming foods high in lutein may increase the density of this pigment and decrease the risk for developing macular degeneration and other age-related diseases.


Carrot Pyramid - the six colours of carrots

Overview - The cultivated carrot is believed to originate from Afghanistan before the 900s, as this area is described as the primary centre of greatest carrot diversity (Mackevic 1929), Turkey being proposed as a secondary centre of origin (Banga 1963). The first cultivated carrots exhibited purple or yellow roots. Carrot cultivation spread to Spain in the 1100s via the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, genetic improvement led to a wide variety of cultivars. White and orange-coloured carrots were first described in Western Europe in the early 1600s (Banga 1963). Concomitantly, the Asiatic carrot was developed from the Afghan type and a red type appeared in China and India around the 1700s (Laufer 1919; Shinohara 1984). According to this history, it makes sense to envisage that colour should be considered as a structural factor in carrot germplasm.

Read this informative article in the Wisconsin Magazine for Life Sciences on how to make a purple carrot here.

Diversity - Carrot varieties contain a wide genetic diversity resulting in a wide range of size, shape and colour, giving them a wide appeal to consumers.

To understand this, consider that both cultivated and wild carrots (known as Queen Anne’s Lace) belong to the same species, Daucus carota, and can freely interbreed. Queen Anne’s Lace, native to Eurasia, but introduced and considered a weed in the United States, is a flower often seen along roadsides whose taproot is a far cry from the carrots usually served at the dining table. Centuries of breeding have drawn on genetic diversity hidden in the lowly wild carrot to produce cultivated carrot varieties of many shapes and sizes.

More specifically, carrots belong to the subspecies Daucus carota ssp. sativus, while wilElsoms Range of Carrot Coloursd carrots are a different subspecies, Daucus carota ssp. carota (Queen Anne’s lace). Cultivated carrots were likely first domesticated from wild carrots in Central Asia. Traits that evolved during its domestication include a large taproot with reduced lateral branching and increased accumulation of carotenoid pigments, which give cultivated carrots their colour. In contrast, wild carrots have a small, tough, white root with many branches.

The cultivated carrot contains genetic variation for many traits which has allowed breeders to produce varieties differing in size, shape and colour. For example, over time varieties have been developed that have different levels and types of carotenoids, giving different varieties either a red, yellow, purple or orange colour. The orange varieties of carrots most Europeans and Americans know are actually a more recent development than most other coloured varieties that some growers now produce for fresh market sales at farmer’s markets. Interestingly, carrot varieties with different pigments may have different health benefits.

Recent work will allow breeders to develop carrots with desired traits much more rapidly. Specifically, geneticists at the University of Wisconsin and collaborators have sequenced the majority of the carrot genome, and these and other researchers have developed genetic markers. This is the first species within this family of plants to have its genome sequenced. With this information, breeders will have a genetic roadmap to help them more quickly and accurately select for genes and groups of genes with desired traits, and then track them in the offspring of crosses as they select for them. Examples of traits that researchers are examining include colour and disease and nematode resistance.

Have you ever seen a purple carrot? How about white, yellow, red or black? Most people haven't, even though such carrots have existed for hundreds of years. They are available in good health food stores, often called "Rainbow Packs".

Carrots do not have to be orange. As a matter of fact, the orange carrot is a relative newcomer on the scene. Carrots were originally either purple or white. Selection and hybridization in the 16th century brought us the vitamin-packed orange carrot we know today.

But carrots are now in the process of becoming more colourful once again. Today, in both markets and seed catalogues, you can find not only orange carrots, but red, yellow, white and purple varieties. With new research that points out the value of the micronutrients in various vegetable pigments, it is undoubtedly good to eat a variety of colours of carrots.

It is considered that Carrots were originally purple or white with a thin root, then a mutant occurred which removed the purple pigmentation resulting in a new race of yellow carrots. A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was specifically bred in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the stabilised and domesticated orange carrot does date from the sixteenth century Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouringDifferent types of coloured carrots William of Orange had anything to do with it! Read the full history of carrot colour here.

The orange colour did not become popular until the 1500's when Dutch growers developed the mutant vegetable by selective breeding to make it less bitter than the yellow varieties, and then it was said to be adopted it as the Royal vegetable in honour of the House of Orange, the Dutch Royal Family, although there is no documentary evidence for this latter "fact". The first carrots were grown for medicinal purposes, perhaps the medicine tasted good!  The main reason why cooks and housewives preferred orange carrots was because they kept their colour after cooking and did not leave cookware with an unpleasant colour.

There is a lot more information about the history of carrots in a separate page here, including the historical timeline.

The history of domestication of the orange carrot is here.

The carotenoid and sugar content of carrots depend on several factors related to climate and soil as well as genetic determinants. The organoleptic (taste) qualities of carrots are controlled by a balance between a range of compounds including both reducing and non-reducing sugars.

Research at the Universities of Krakow (Poland)  and Warwick (UK) confirms what previous studies have shown, that there are no clear differences detected in total sugars related to root colour. Carrot sweetness depends on the presence of sucrose and the two reducing sugars glucose and fructose. Sugar content is a quantitative trait under polygenic control with heritability estimated by other authors at 0.45. The ratio of non-reducing to reducing sugars in carrot roots is determined by a single gene. Volatile compounds additionally influence the perception of sweetness in carrots. Terpenoids like terpinolene, terpinene or caryophyllene, are indicated as important components. The presence of soluble phenolics also highly correlates with sweetness as demonstrated for processed carrots.

European/American material do however tend to have more sugar than Asiatic types.

In simple terms, taste is a quality influenced by other compounds as well as sugar. Carrots of the various colours contain approximately the same amount of sugar and it is other compounds which determine whether one coloured carrot is sweeter than another colour. 

(Source - Baranski, Rafal, Charlotte Allender, Magdalena Klimek-Chodacka, 2011 - Towards better tasting and more nutritious carrots: Carotenoid and sugar content variation in carrot genetic resources - Food Research International 47 (2012) 182–187)

Sugars accumulate in the root during photosynthesis and act as a reserve to support that biennial phase of the plant, unless we harvest the carrots and eat them first! There is very little starch in carrots compared to potatoes, for example, so storage carbohydrates are primarily glucose, fructose and sucrose. Other root carbohydrates are tied up in the cell wall as pectins, cellulose and lignin, and once sugars get incorporated into the cell wall they are not able to be released for use by the plant again (like starch, which can be degraded).

There are definite wide differences in sugar content, 5-fold is not uncommon (depending what's being compared). One major gene controls what type of sugar is stored: either predominantly glucose + fructose (which is typical) or predominantly sucrose (which is not common).

These wide differences can be associated with colour, but that's by chance, not cause and effect. Breeders can however breed for sugar type (glucose-fructose or sucrose) and amount (higher or lower) in any colour class. (Source P W Simon, USDA).

Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that pigments in these colourful carrots, which taste just like regular carrots, may help prevent heart disease and cancer, and reduce cholesterol. Studies examining the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are revealing the disease-preventive powers of the pigments that give plants their distinctive colours.

Orange carrots get their colour from beta carotene, a pigment the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency, although rare in the United States, poses a major public health problem in developing countries second only to protein malnutrition.

According to the World Health Organization, vitamin A deficiency partially or totally blinds nearly 350,000 children from more than 75 countries every year. Roughly 60 percent of these children die within months of going blind. However, vitamin A deficiency is preventable.

Read the article published by the Agricultural Research Service of USDA - "Carrots with Character" (pdf).

The colour orange stimulates the appetite - read more about the colour of adventure and social communication, and empower yourself with colour psychology  here.

Why are orange carrots, the colour orange? -  it's the Beta Carotene - Carrots are orange because they absorb certain wavelengths of light more efficiently than others. Beta-carotene is the main pigment and is mainly absorbs in the 400-500nm region of the visible spectrum with a peak absorption at about 450nm. Carotenoids are one of the most important groups of natural pigments. They cause the yellow/orange colours of many fruit and vegetables. Though beta-carotene is most abundant in carrots it is also found in pumpkins, apricots and nectarines. Dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli are another good source. In these the orange colour is masked by the green colour of chlorophyll. This can be seen in leaves; in autumn, when the leaves die, the chlorophyll breaks down, and the yellow/red colours of the more stable carotenoids can be seen.


Ernst Benary,  (1819-1893)  -

Album Benary. (Erfurt) 1876

Identification (left to right):

Top row -

1. Long Orange Belgian, green top;
2. Transparent White;
3. Scarlet Intermediate;
4. Semi long Scarlet Obtuse, for forcing;
5. Long yellow;
6. Large White Belgian, green top;

Bottom row -

7. Earliest red Duwick, for forcing;
8. Long Red Erfurt;
9. Improved Long Red Altringham [sic];
10. Long Red Surrey;
11. Semi-long Scarlet Nantes, or Stump-rooted;
12. Early Long Scarlet, short-leaved;
13. Earliest Scarlet French Horn


Factors Affecting the Colour of Carrots

The main variation in the colour of carrot is due to genotype, the development of the plant, the temperature during the growing season and also other agronomic practices such as the use of fertilisers. (reference Bajaj et al 1980, Van de Burg et 2000 - Plant food Human Nutrition 30: 97-107; Journal of Food Science and Agric 80:880-912)

Carrot (Daucus carota) is a biannual plant that accumulates massive amounts of carotenoid pigments in the storage root. Although the root of carrot plants was white before domestication, intensive breeding generated the currently known carotenoid-rich varieties, including the widely popular orange carrots that accumulate very high levels of the pro-vitamin A carotenoids b-carotene and, to a lower extent, a-carotene. Recent studies have shown that the developmental program responsible for the accumulation of these health-promoting carotenes in underground roots can be completely altered when roots are exposed to light. Illuminated root sections do not enlarge as much as dark-grown roots, and they contain chloroplasts with high levels of lutein instead of the b-carotene-rich chromoplasts found in underground roots. Analysis of carotenoid gene expression in roots either exposed or not to light has contributed to better understand the contribution of developmental and environmental cues to the root carotenoid profile.

Young carrot roots are pale but after the first month of growth they start accumulating carotenoids to reach highest levels in about 3 months, just before secondary growth is completed [1–3]. It is likely that wild carrot plants had uncoloured roots of a bitter taste and a woody core but were initially cultivated because of their aromatic leaves and seeds. Carrot domestication probably took place around the 10th century [4] but despite intensive breeding procedures since the 19th century, the background structure coming from demographic and early cultivation history still persists in currently cultivated carrot germplasm [5]. At present, carrots (i.e. mature D. carota roots) are available in a range of colours, although orange varieties are most popular. Even though the high carotene content in carrots makes them one of the richest pro-vitamin A sources in the human diet, the mechanisms regulating their production remained poorly known until recently. (ref -  Biosynthesis of carotenoids in carrot: An underground story comes to light Manuel Rodriguez-Concepcion,, Claudia Stange - Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics 539 (2013) 110–116)

Main factors include:

1. Temperatures above and below the optimum (above 70° and below 60°F) reduce the colour of carrots.

2. Spring and summer carrots are often of better colour than autumn and winter.

3. Carrots grown on sandy soils and soils high in organic matter have been shown to  produce a higher colour than carrots grown on silt loams.

4. Excessive watering decreases the colour.

5. Reducing the number of daylight hours can reduce the colour.

6. Colour is more intense in the older portions of the root. It decreases from the epidermis and centre toward the cambium, and from the top to the bottom.

Bunches of multi coloured carrots

Carotenoid Content

Extract from Carotenoid Profiles and Consumer Sensory Evaluation of Speciality Carrots, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2004    More detailed table here.

J. Agric. Food Chem. 2004, 52, 3417-3421

Important Note - The chemical constituents of carrot are not there by chance, but perform a function. Many constituents of the orange carrot we now cultivate are also in the white root of the wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace, from which our carrot was developed. This is true of falcarinol, falcarindiol, and myristicin. Carotene (present in small amounts in Queen Anne's lace) has been increased by centuries of selection. Volatile oils have been decreased in this process. Plant scientists must continue to monitor all known constituents nutritive and non-nutritive - as new cultivars of the carrot are developed to keep our vegetables nutritious and safe. Plant breeding for the sake of high yields, appearance, and keeping quality will not be sufficient.

Carotenoid pigments provide red, yellow and orange colours and antioxidant protection to a wide variety of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. In plants, carotenoids play a protective role in photosynthesis by dissipating excess light energy absorbed by the photosynthetic mechanism. 

What it means is that carotenoids are good antioxidant compounds which effectively prevent damage to DNA or other important parts of cells. This damage can be caused by ‘free radicals’ which are very reactive molecules generated through the normal living processes of a cell (the release or generation of energy).

In plants, the carotenoids protect the plant cells from damage caused by energy from the sun in the same way. Carotenoids are also a starting point for the construction of other useful compounds, so their function is not always protective. There are possibly more important  parts of the plant containing carotenoids (eg the leaves) where they are less obvious because they are masked by the green colour of chlorophyll. In the parts of the plant which don’t photosynthesize, we can see their presence more easily.

The Unique Properties of all the Colours -

The colour of carrot root is the result of various pigments that serve as intermediate products in the carotenoids pathway (Koch and Goldman 2005). Six carotenes have been reported in carrots, as α-, β-, γ- and ξ-carotenes, lycopene and β-zeacarotene (Simon and Wolff 1987). The major pigments responsible for orange and yellow colour of the roots are α- and β-carotene. β-carotene often represent 50% or more of the total carotenoids content. The red colour of the carrot root is caused by lycopene and the yellow colour is affected by xanthophylls (Rubatzky et al. 1999). White roots are low in total carotenoids (Buishand and Gableman 1979). Purple carrots contain very high contents of phenolics, mainly anthocyanins, and are characterized by a higher antioxidant capacity than orange, yellow or white varieties (Alasalvar et al. 2005). Differences in chemical composition, mainly among the phenolics, have been demonstrated as useful in distinguishing some Daucus species, whereas polyacetylenes, coumarins and sugars have not provided useful distinction (Crowden et al.1969).

Each unique colour of carrots has different pigments and health benefits. Coloured carrots are becoming popular again and it is hoped that their colourful appearance will entice young children (and adults!) to eat a more balanced diet and reap the health rewards from these vegetables. Studies have been carried out in the USA on the differing properties of different coloured carrots.

Orange Carrots contain beta carotene, with some alpha-carotene, both of which are orange pigments. High in Vitamin A essential for well-being, healthy eyes. These carrots originate from Europe and the Middle East. Like all carrots these are a good source of fibre, which is vital for healthy gastrointestinal tracts and is linked to reducing cholesterol. Their pre-dominant pigment is beta-carotene; the orange pigment which is converted by the liver to vitamin A which is important for healthy vision. It forms rhodopsin, which the eye needs to see in dim light. This is accomplished by raising the effectiveness of the light sensitive area of the retina. Vitamin A also maintains the surface linings of the respiratory, urinary, and intestinal tracts, and regulates the immune system by helping white blood cells fight infections.

Orange Carrot Slice

Yellow carrots contain xanthophylls and lutein, pigments similar to beta carotene, which help develop healthy eyes aid in the fight against macular degeneration and may prevent lung and other cancers and reduce the risk of astherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). These came from the Middle East. The major pigment found in the yellow carrots is xanthophyll which helps develop healthy eyes. Studies have shown that intake of xanthophyll-rich foods are associated with a significant reduction in the risk for cataract (up to 20%) and for age-related macular degeneration (up to 40%) (Moeller, Jacques & Blumberg 2000). Yellow Carrot page.

Yellow Carrot slice

Red carrots are tinted by lycopene, (another form of carotene) a pigment also found in tomatoes and watermelon; lycopene is associated with the reduced risk of macular degeneration, serum lipid oxidation, helps prevent heart disease and a wide variety of cancers including prostate cancer. Originally from India and China. Red carrots contain the pigment known as lycopene which has been associated with a lowered risk of prostate cancer in men and heart disease. It also helps maintain healthy skin. Red Carrot page

Red Carrot slice
White carrots lack any pigmentation, but do contain other health-promoting substances called phytochemicals, natural bioactive compounds found in plant foods that work with nutrients and dietary fibre to protect against disease. One might say these are the least healthy of carrots. They originate from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan. These chemicals may be important in reducing the risk of atherosclerosis , which is the build up of fatty deposits in artery walls. White carrots are preferably used in baby foods to prevent them from forming orange skin. White carrot page white carrot slice

Purple carrots (usually orange inside) have even more beta carotene than their orange cousins, and get their pigment from an entirely different class, the anthocyanins, these pigments act as powerful antioxidants that protect key cell components, grabbing and holding on to harmful free radicals in the body. Anthocyanins also help prevent heart disease by slowing blood clotting and are good anti inflammatory agents. These originate from Turkey, and the Middle and Far East. Purple carrot page

Purple Carrot slice

The Purple Haze variety have a more purple/red and white centre. Purple carrots neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals which disrupt the structure of other molecules leading to cellular damage, aging, and various health problems. Anti-inflammatory properties of anthocyanins have also been observed. They neutralize enzymes that destroy connective tissue and they repair damaged proteins in blood vessel walls. Finally, anthocyanins may prevent heart disease by slowing blood clotting and inhibiting the absorption of LDL, “the bad cholesterol.”

Purple Haze Carrot Slice
Black Carrots contain anthocyanins, part of the flavonoid family with antioxidant properties. Flavonoids are currently under investigation as anticancer compounds, as free radical scavengers in living systems, as well as inhibitors of LDL (the bad) cholesterol and the black carrot anthocyanins are especially active.

The Black variety has anti-bacterial and anti-fungicidal properties and oil made from its seed can help control scalp itchiness and provides essential nutrients for hair growth. The ancient black carrot has been making a comeback, not so much for culinary purposes but as a source of natural food colorants. These originate from Turkey, and the Middle and Far East. Black carrot page

Black Carrot Slice

See more colour variations here (new window) - University of Agriculture, Krakow.

Important Note - The chemical constituents of carrots are not there by chance, but perform a function. Many constituents of the orange carrot we now cultivate are also in the white root of the wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace, from which domestic carrot originated. This is true of falcarinol, falcarindiol, and myristicin. Carotene (present in small amounts in Queen Anne's lace) has been increased by centuries of selection. Volatile oils have been decreased in this process. Plant scientists must continue to monitor all known constituents nutritive and non-nutritive - as new cultivars of the carrot are developed to keep our vegetables nutritious and safe. Plant breeding for the sake of high yields, appearance, and keeping quality will not be sufficient.

Thompson & Morgan have a tremendous variety of carrot seeds for you to try, click on the link or banner to buy some. 

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See photos of common varieties supplied by Thompson and Morgan the leading seed suppliers in the US and UK. Click here.

Some Sources of Carrot Seed Varieties for United States Home Gardeners - here

Also check out the Sustainable Seed Co US

Salt Spring Seeds (Heritage and Heirloom seeds) - here

Black Carrots - see Carrot Museum Black Carrot page.


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Reference material here. Also read the Comprehensive Review of Carrot Colors and their properties here.

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