#60 The Carrot Myth

Written by Food Non-Fiction December 1, 2016

Have you ever heard the carrot myth? You know, it's something that parents always tell their kids - that eating carrots will give you super night vision. Some people's parents really play this up - I used to think that eating carrots would give me cat-like vision, but that never got tested, because I didn't eat them anyways.

Where did the carrot myth come from? To answer the question, we spoke to Maya Hirschman - the manager and curator of the Secrets of Radar Museum.

WWII poster
WWII poster

Some researchers believe that the carrot myth started as a cover up for British radar technology. While radar technology was being developed before the Second World War, it became exceptionally important during the Second World War. Radar technology was being developed at such a rapid pace during WWII that any new breakthroughs had to be kept secret. Each new advancement could put you ahead of the competition. Radar was used both offensively (to guide attacks) and defensively (to detect attacks).

The British Royal Air Force developed the Airborne Interception Radar (AI). AI was used on aircraft for air-to-air combat. The German airforce (the Luftwaffe), often attacked at night and AI gave the British Royal Airforce superior night vision. One pilot was particularly good at using radar to take down German planes in the dark of night - his name was John Cunningham, and he was nicknamed “John Cat’s Eyes Cunningham”. In order to steer German suspicion away from the new technology, Cat’s Eyes’ abilities were attributed to him eating a lot of carrots.

People working with radar had to keep quiet and let carrots take the credit for their work. In Commonwealth countries, the official secrets act had a minimum period of 33 years - the radar personnel were under the Official Secrets Act for 50 years.

Why Attribute Cat's Eyes' Abilities to Carrots? 

Dig For Victory poster
Dig For Victory poster [credit The National Archives UK]

At the start of the Second World War, Britain was importing more than 50% of their food, which means that they could only produce less than half of their food needs if they were cut off of imported food supplies. Lord Woolton, who was the minister of food at the time, said that the Second World War was a "food war" - only if Britain could sustain their food supplies could they help to win the war. So, along with rationing, The U.K. Ministry of Food launched the Dig for Victory campaign. The idea of the campaign was to get people to turn their gardens into little vegetable farms to grow their own food in. Not only would this replace the loss of imported foods, some of it sunk by the German navy during transportation, less importing would also free up the merchant ships for war use - for example, for transporting troops and weapons. By the way, the United States Department of Agriculture also encouraged Americans to grow produce in their gardens - they called them “Victory Gardens”.

Dig for Victory slogan:
“Dig! Dig! Dig! And your muscles will grow big
Keep on pushing the spade
Don’t mind the worms
Just ignore their squirms
And when your back aches laugh with glee
And keep on diggin’
Till we give our foes a wiggin’
Dig! Dig! Dig! to Victory"

It was a successful campaign - by 1943 there were over a million vegetable gardens. People planted things like carrots, potatoes, and cabbages. One vegetable that was more plentiful was the carrot. So the ministry of food wanted people to start using more carrots in meals. But it wasn’t a popular vegetable at the time. In order to promote carrots, the Ministry of Food introduced Dr. Carrot as a carrot mascot. Lord Woolton, who, as we’ve mentioned was the Minister of Food, asked Disney to help create more carrot characters. Disney obliged and created a carrot family, including Carroty George, Clara Carrot, and Pop Carrot. (According to the World Carrot Museum, Disney offered one more character called Dr. Carrot, but as we mentioned, the Ministry of Food already had a character named Dr. Carrot.)

Leaflets with these carrot mascots alongside recipes for using carrots were distributed. The campaign for carrots generated tons of creative carrot recipes - like carrot fudge, curried carrot, and carrot pudding. The Ministry of Food also used a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front to share all kinds of rationing tips and recipe suggestions. One episode gave the recipe for carrot curry, which actually sounded pretty good to me.

If you want to hear about the many stories from WWII radar veterans, then visit secretsofradar.com, and if you’re in London, Ontario then go and visit the museum! The museum was created by radar veterans to finally share their stories after 50 years under the Official Secrets Act. The history of WWII written during the 50 year period is missing the stories of the many radar personnel from the Commonwealth countries. 

Food buffs, we should note that carrots are great for you. Carrots contain beta carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A, which is important for eye health. Your parents gave you great advice. It can’t hurt to eat more carrots, but if you are already a regular person, eating decently balanced meals, with no vitamin deficiencies, then don’t expect the extra carrots to make much of a difference. As in don’t be expecting super-human night vision.

And while we’re on the topic of WWII in Britain, we feel like we should also mention the Women’s Land Army. The Women’s Land Army was established to get women to work on farms, helping to fight food shortage. These women worked the fields and managed the livestock. And members were referred to as “land girls”.

We found lyrics to two songs referred to as Land Girl’s Songs.
First, from a BBC article:
“Back to the Land, we must all lend a hand,
To the farms and the fields we must go,
There’s a job to be done,
Though we can’t fire a gun,
We can still do our bit with the hoe.”

And from a website called womenslandarmy.co.uk:
“I’m milking - at last I can actually milk
It took me some time, but I stuck it
So now I milk Buttercup, Daisy and Jane
And I really get froth on the bucket!
I think by next week I shall even milk four
My word, we are winning the war!” 

Special Thanks to:

Maya Hirschman from The Secrets of Radar Museum for the interview

Public Service Broadcasting for allowing us to use their Dig for Victory track

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