Folks, I know you have all heard it; actually, most of us, me included, have all through believed that the consumption of carrots helps improve eyesight. As a matter of fact, I grew up believing in that theory and never disputed it even for a moment; I had no reason to anyway. I mean, even most of our celebrated local medics have always subscribed to that argument. Who was I to dispute it?
But that was until a while back when, a friend posed a challenge to me that changed everything.
It all began in the market one Saturday afternoon. I was busy buying groceries and in the process of arguing about this and that with the Mama Mboga, I picked a pack of carrots, put it into my shopping basket and subconsciously ranted, “Carrots are good especially for the eyesight of those of us who spend lots of time staring at computer screens.”
And it is at this point that my friend, who had accompanied me to the market interjected, “wrong argument! Carrots don’t help much in eyesight. It’s a pure myth.”
Of course, I disagreed.
The guy therefore challenged me to go research on the topic and prove him wrong and, true to his words, we have all been living a lie folks!
The reality is damn far from the truth.
Yes, carrots are a good source of beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A—a crucial component of overall eye health. But while carrots might help the vision of a person with severe malnutrition, gobbling down excess amounts of them won’t allow you to suddenly ditch your glasses or see better in the dark.
The direct link between carrots and eyesight, as we have always known it, is a total lie.
Actually, dark, leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens are better for your eyes than carrots. These veggies contain more antioxidants such as lutein and zeaxanthin, which can protect your eyes from certain high-energy rays of light that can harm your retina. These greens and their carotenoids can also reduce the advancement of age-related macular degeneration, which can cause blindness.
Sweet potatoes are also good for your eyes, and they contain more vitamin A than carrots. Fresh fruit also has vitamins C and E, which are good for your peepers. Most people get enough vitamin A from their diets to keep their eyes healthy and strong.
So where did this entire carrots spin come from, one may ask.
It all dates back to the World War II, early 1940s, and a famous misinformation campaign by the British government. At the time, the Royal Air Force was utilizing a new onboard radar system called Airborne Interception Radar, which allowed their pilots to more effectively target German bombers during nighttime missions. To keep the true source of their higher kill counts under wraps, the RAF spread a rumor that its fighter aces’ cat-like night vision was the result of a steady diet of vitamin-rich carrots.
The British even went further to publicize “night fighters”, well fed on carrots, as having night vision spectacular enough to spot enemy planes in the dark. The most successful night fighter became a sensation. The media lauded John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham for his ability to spot Luftwaffe bombers at night. But even his cool nickname was misdirection. While the Air Ministry claimed a diet of carrots was responsible for his spectacular shooting prowess, his accuracy was in a large part due to the Airborne Interception Radar.
And the carrots story was not just a tactic to fool the enemy. It had multiple intended goals.
On December 22, 1940, the British Ministry of Agriculture released a statement urging the populace to eat carrots. “If we included a sufficient quantity of carrots in our diet,” the statement read, “we should overcome the fairly prevalent malady of blackout blindness.”
The government had another motivation in pushing carrots: Great Britain faced food shortages due to wartime rationing, and carrots were plentiful and cheap. This led government agencies to tout them as having eye-strengthening powers as part of widespread campaigns aimed at getting the British public to eat carrots.
Radio spots and film reels humorously extolled carrots. Grim posters plastered around cities implied that only by eating carrots could people dodge darkened cars. Britain’s Ministry of Food even published pamphlets with recipes such as carrot fudge and carrot croquettes, while proclaiming the vegetable could help people “see better in the blackout.”
The government made so much noise about carrots that it was news in the United States and elsewhere. “Lord Woolton, who is trying to wean the British away from cabbage and brussels sprouts, is plugging carrots,” Raymond Daniell, the New York Times’ London bureau chief wrote in an article about blackout survival techniques. “To hear him talk, they contain enough Vitamin A to make moles see in a coal mine.” That Lord Woolton, the peer heading the Ministry of Food, was known to say, “A carrot a day keeps the blackout at bay.”
Meanwhile, England developed “Dr. Carrot,” a cheerful cartoon carrot with a top hat and a medicine bag emblazoned with “VIT-A.” Lord Woolton even roped Walt Disney into the carrot-lauding game. When Woolton sent Disney a telegram asking for more carroty mascots, Disney immediately had one of his artists whip up the Carrot Family: Carroty George, Pop Carrot, and Clara Carrot. Printed on newspaper inserts and event posters, the Carrot Family was “food propaganda,” often accompanied by recipes.
The Germans were probably never fooled by the carrot trick, and the ruse was rendered moot when Germany developed its own AI system. But for years, Britons and Americans were bombarded with carrot propaganda and publicity surrounding British flying aces and their carrot-filled diets. Cunningham and Carroty George may be hazy memories, but their message endures. Though born of wartime necessity, the concept of carrots’ eye-strengthening qualities has grown deep roots.
So, stop living a lie folks.