Common wisdom says that eating lots of carrots will power up your vision to Hawkeye levels. But is there any truth to this vegetable factoid?
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When I was child, I had one dream: To be able to hit clay pigeons with a crossbow in the dark at 300 yards ... while riding on the back of a beautiful Pegasus ... anyway, my mom told me: “Cristen, if you want to have that kind of hyper-acute night vision, you’ve got to eat your carrots.“
It’s common wisdom of our generation: Eat lots of carrots if you want eyes like a jet pilot. But do carrots really give you better eyesight?
The short answer is if you already have enough vitamin A in your diet, probably not. But if you don’t, a big ol’ sack of carrots might be exactly what you need.
Carrots are packed full of a nutrient called beta-carotene, which is kind of like a natural dye for fruits and vegetables. Plants use beta-carotene in their bodies as a pigment that gives them a yellow-orange color. But when you eat foods containing this natural pigment, like sweet potatoes, spinach or carrots, the beta-carotene gets absorbed by your intestinal wall and converted into vitamin A.
So here’s the true part of the myth: If you want to maintain normal eye health, you’ve got to get enough vitamin A, and carrots are a perfectly good source. In regions where people don’t get much vitamin A in their diets, vision problems are rampant. Without vitamin A, the photoreceptors in your eyes start to deteriorate, and your corneas can actually vanish.
But if you don’t have a vitamin A deficiency, and your vision is already healthy, stuffing your face with carrots – or any other source of the vitamin – won’t lead to superhuman eyeball powers.
So ... where did we get the idea that carrots do to your eyes what spinach does to Popeye’s forearms? Believe it or not, this myth got a big boost from World War II propaganda.
During World War II, the U.K. was subjected to Axis air raids, when the German Luftwaffe would strike at British cities in the night. Over the years, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) had some success pushing back the German air attacks.
One explanation for their success is that from 1939 onward, British pilots had access to a technology called on-board Airborne Interception Radar to help them spot enemy planes from a great distance. But the U.K. Ministry of Food launched a propaganda campaign claiming that its fighter pilots could pick out enemy aircraft in the dark because they honed their eyes with ... carrots.
Some sources have speculated that this story was designed to hide the existence of the RAF’s on-board radar system from the enemy.
Another explanation might be simple economics: German blockades meant that many goods, like sugar, had to be rationed, and the U.K. government was encouraging its citizens to turn to sugar substitutes.
For example, carrots, which were plentiful even during the war, and could be used as a sweetener in foods like “carrot pudding” and “carrot fudge,” and even as a substitute for meat in the infamous “Woolton Pie.” Mmmm...
RAF plane photo (public domain):
Vintage Carrot ad (public domain):
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Find more lesson plans like this:A History of U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to post-9/11
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