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Friday, September 17, 2010

The Odd Evolution of the Baby Carrot

baby carrot photo

iStockphoto/Thinkstock


If you were to ask the average American child what a carrot looks like, they would likely endeavor to describe something that more resembles a flame-colored finger: rounded at the edges and uniformly smooth. The idea of carrots being knobby, conical, and deep orange with a feathery green crown is just plainly outmoded after two subsequent decades of baby carrot dominance. The baby carrot, being far more accessible, homogeneous, and kid-friendly, has redefined our notion (or at least the younger generation’s notion) of what carrots can, and should, look like. But as with all points of progress (especially concerning processed foods) it wasn’t always this way.

Some would say that baby carrots are the dumb, consumer-driven spawn of the more dignified garden-variety carrot. Others, namely farmer Mike Yurosek, would say they are a genius exercise in agricultural efficiency, and a hell of a moneymaker. As the baby carrot lore goes, Yorosek got tired of seeing 400 tons of carrots a day drop down the cull shoot at his packing plant in Bakersfield, CA (the culls are those carrots that are too twisted, knobby, or plain ugly to be marketable). Sometimes more than 70 percent of his carrots were tossed, composted, or fed to livestock. In an effort to recoup some of these losses, Yurosek devised a way to take these culls, shape them and shave them into those familiar baby carrot fingers and essentially turn waste into profits (most baby carrots sell for 50 percent more than conventional carrots – it is all in the packaging).

How Baby Carrots are Made


That was back in the 90s, and since then baby carrots have become ubiquitous and near dominant in the produce aisle (along with a requisite item alongside ranch dressing). Many purists (or those that find little use for the cynical packaging and marketing of the product), call foul and claim that these carrots are hardly baby (this is true, as they are a variety of imperator carrots that are bred to grow faster) not as healthy (there have been studies that show, while they have higher sugar levels than most carrots, baby carrots contain significantly less beta carotene) and that they are soaked in dangerous chemicals to retain their freshness (there is some truth to this, as some baby carrots are treated with chlorine as an antimicrobial measure). Still, there is no stopping the diminutive baby carrot.

But tell this to the carrot growers of America. In a push to remain relevant in today’s junk food conquered market, carrot growers (specifically the baby carrot growers) have bank rolled a $25 million dollar campaign to boost baby carrot sales and market them as, not junk food alternatives, but as junk food themselves.

Baby Carrots! Extreme!


With a two-pronged attack utilizing a website as well as a number of slick television spots (and who knows how many other site-specific publicity stunts are in the works) the baby carrot rebranding has begun. With baby carrot packaging that more closely resembles bags of Cool Ranch Doritos than nature’s bounty, and tag lines like, “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food,” subtlety is not exactly the tactic here. While the marketing campaign seems wholly unnecessary (which it is) it is not wholly cynical (only partially). This tongue-in-cheek rebranding effort, while obviously intended to boost sales, is also a sort of meta attempt to poke fun at the utterly stupid, testosterone-informed, mindless promotion that goes into selling product to children (or anyone for that matter).

Baby Carrot Commercial


Clever? Maybe. Will it convince junk food addicted kids to switch to baby carrots? Probably not. That said, I have little doubt that as long as people are averse to eating anything that looks like a real carrot (unless it is Cheetos), baby carrots will maintain that coveted placement in lunchboxes, snack packs, and as in-flight snacks around the country, if not the world.

Are you a fan of baby carrots and packaged produce in general, like sliced apples and cellophane-wrapped, microwavable potatoes? Or is the whole business of processing and packaging fruit and vegetables feel more like a ruse than added value?

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

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