At their peak in the late '90s, per-capita U.S. carrot consumption had more than doubled from a decade before.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

Ah, the humble carrot. No one questions its virtues, but it doesn’t have the zing of a tomato or the exotic allure of, say, fennel. As it turned out, it wasn’t that people didn’t like carrots; it was just a veggie in need of a peel.

Cut-and-peel, or “baby” carrots, transformed the industry, turning a generic commodity into a special snack that shoppers seek out. Fifteen years ago, the carrot industry was lying fallow, with carrots an expected — if boring — part of any refrigerator arsenal. But with the introduction of these tiny carrots in the late 1980s, and their amazing rise to success through the 1990s, carrots were reborn as a premium food. At their peak in the late ’90s, per-capita U.S. carrot consumption had more than doubled from a decade before — nearly all of that from the fresh carrot sector, which far outsells frozen and canned.

Not only do they have Americans eating carrots at near-record rates, but retailers can charge far more for the contents of the same orange bag. They’re even devoured by (gasp!) ... kids.

“It’s one of the bigger success stories in produce,” says Ken Hodge, communications director for the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association.

Of course, “baby” carrots don’t quite live up to their name. They’re simply fully grown carrots, cut into 2-inch sections and peeled — or, actually, abraded by a machine that essentially grates off their outer layer and rounds the ends. (For convenience, some call them “baby-cut,” to distinguish them from real baby carrots, which are also sold as a specialty item.) They were initially created as a toss-away item, a way to salvage misshapen and broken carrots so they wouldn’t have to be thrown out.

When orange means green
What was just a method to reduce waste has become a monster. At major supermarket chains packages of baby-cut have far outsold their full-sized cousins and now make up the dominant share of carrot sales. A two-pound bag of regular Albertston’s carrots might sell for $1.29, while two pounds of the baby-cut sell for nearly $3. Many chains now market their own brands of baby-cut — and offer an ever-expanding range of package sizes to meet every shopper’s need.

“That is a reflection of the produce industry coming to grips with who they’re producing for,” says Philipp Simon, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin who researches carrot genetics. “Who’d have thought you’d pay three times as much for a carrot that’s cut into pieces and peeled?”

That willingness by shoppers to pay extra is part of a larger trend. Fresh, ready-to-eat vegetables have boomed across many sectors of the industry as growers have started to bag everything from lettuce and spinach to broccoli and apple slices. As these veggie packages are made in smaller, even more convenient formats, people keep finding new ways to use them — from party plates to airline snacks. And Americans demonstrate again and again they will happily shell out more for a fuss-free product.

“People are looking for that convenience in any product they can find it,” says Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “That suddenly becomes something you find in the lunch pail, whereas before maybe you found a Twinkie.”

Transformed to the core
The baby-cut boom also transformed the industry from its roots up. Before, growers were more interested in a bulky carrot with more of a tapered shape. But those were hard to chop into baby shape, so plant breeders worked to create varieties that were longer and narrower, allowing a producer to get four cuts instead of three on each carrot root, which is the part of the plant we eat. They also found they could limit the diameter size of carrots by increasing the density with which they were planted — a discovery that helped them harvest more carrots per acre.

(This sort of change wasn’t new for carrot growers: Up to the 1950s, when carrots were sold with their leaves intact, they were bred for hearty leaf growth. That stopped after grocers started selling just roots.)

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Today’s carrot is also now bred for uniform color. Because the cutting process exposes much of the root to the buyer’s eye, producers don’t want their bags of carrots to be colored like a paint palette.

“With baby carrots or cut-and-peel carrots, you can see the core of every chunk,” says Simon. “The growers would like every carrot in that bag to look like every other one.”

Growers also obsess about texture and taste. You might find carrots far sweeter than they were in the past, and that’s intentional. Researchers found much of their appeal as a snack came from their sweetness, especially for perennially sweet-toothed kids, and bred them to have more natural sugar and less of the harsh taste that comes if you do a poor job of peeling. The new varieties’ names reflect the change in growers’ needs: Prime Cut, Sweet Cuts, Morecuts. (If you’re growing at home, by the way, you’re probably still getting seeds of older varieties. The new ones don’t seem to look as good in the garden.)

And perhaps most important, the baby-cut method allows growers to use far more of the carrot than they used to. In the past, a third or more of a carrot crop could have been easily tossed away, but baby-cut allows more partial carrots to be used, and the peeling process actually removes less of the outer skin that you might imagine — in part because growers, who are selling by weight, don’t want to take off more than they need to.

And what’s left over after the initial processing can still be used in even smaller products, or squeezed for juice.

“The more of the carrot we can use, the better for the company,” says Patty Boman, vice president of marketing for California carrot producer Grimmway Farms. “We’ve had whole product lines come out of, ‘This is what we have left, what do we do with it?’”

California's bounty
Producing 9 million pounds of carrots a day from its 35,000 planted acres of carrots, Grimmway is arguably the largest carrot grower in the nation — rotating its fields throughout Southern California to produce a year-round growing season.

Along with competitor Bolthouse Farms, it produces upwards of 80 percent of the carrots in California, which grows nearly two-thirds of all the carrots in the country.

Grimmway didn’t introduce the fresh baby carrot onto the market — that honor goes to Mike Yurosek & Son, the competitor that first introduced it, and some in the industry remember unsuccessful attempts in the 1950s to take the tiny carrots used in TV dinners and sell them fresh. But Grimmway quickly saw the potential, bought out Yurosek and turned to inventing dozens of new carrot products, all produced and packaged so consumers could dig right in without a single flick of the peeler. They now sell over 40 brands, marketed under such names as Premier and Bunny-Luv, that include not just baby-cut but also sticks, chips, dipping packages, shredded carrots and juice — in addition to the old-fashioned whole carrots that still make up about half their output, in part because more Americans have turned to juicing their own veggies.

If it can be made from carrot, the industry seems willing to package it and put it in the supermarket. And Americans still seem willing to buy.

Endless options
Indeed, packaged carrot products have become so ubiquitous that the industry has leveled off in per-capita consumption. Americans are still eating 50 percent more carrots than they were, but ironically, the carrot has regained such an important position on the shopping list that some in the industry worry it could be losing its value as a premium product. (And some of that drop, they point out, could also be because peeled products actually offer more edible carrot per pound. Buying less doesn’t mean eating less.)

With that in mind, researchers are always looking for ways to spice up the carrot. Producers want to darken the color of carrots, not just for aesthetics but also because the deeper orange signals more beta-carotene, an antioxidant that serves as one of the best sources of vitamin A, for which carrots are renowned.

And Simon, along with other scientists, has pushed the color curve — producing white, red and purple carrots that, he says, are actually the colors the roots were originally grown in some 1,000 years ago. The colors give growers still more marketing options — especially for kids, who seem drawn to items that look like someone was having fun with crayons — and could even be mixed together in a variety pack.

Grimmway isn’t ready to go quite that far (“We think orange is beautiful,” Boman says) but they’re eager to keep expanding their product line — always looking for the next coming food trend as a vehicle to get their carrots into Americans’ stomachs.

As Boman puts it: “You just have to always be looking for the next baby carrot.”

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