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Forget orange, doc: Antioxidant-rich purple carrots hit the big time

Robyn Mackenzie/Getty Images/iStockphoto

What started as an experiment has become a valuable commodity.

Five years ago farmer Jason Verkaik, owner of Carron Farms in Holland Marsh, Ont., laid down a trial patch of purple carrots on his property. At the time, no one he knew was growing alternative vegetables. For him, it was an opportunity to stand out from his competitors. Today, he is harvesting more than a hectare of the purple vegetable; next season he expects to see substantial growth.

"Sales are increasing each year. A few years ago, there was no money in growing and selling purple carrots, but now it's definitely viable and you can certainly make money from it," he says.

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What was thought of as a niche market perhaps five years ago is now inching toward the mainstream.

"There is a trend with diversification at the moment, of fruits and vegetables in the marketplace," says Dr. John Kelly, vice-president of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association. "For example, sweet potatoes have made large inroads through products like Sweet Potato Fries. You did not see these on the market just a few years ago, and now they are doing very well."

Carrots were originally purple or red with a thin root and hailed from the Afghan region, long before the development of the orange variety by the Dutch in the 1500s. What makes the purple vegetable highly nutritional is the colour pigments that possess anthocyanins, a sugar source found in fruit, and they act as powerful antioxidants that aid digestion.

A U.S. study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry showed anthocyanins provide some protection against colon cancer, and Dr. Gopi Paliyath, a director of food and health at the University of Guelph, who also specializes in horticultural chemicals and their affects on health, has found that the antioxidants in purple carrots are important in the fight against heart disease.

"You get the same nutrient value from a purple carrot as you'd find in a blueberry," Dr. Paliyath says. "The sweet taste from its sugar content also gives it that extra appeal."

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