Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Can you eat carrot tops?

One is not exposed to danger who, even when in safety is always on their guard. – Publilius Syrus 

“Can you eat carrot tops?” Sounds like a simple enough question. The answer depends on who you ask.

It’s also a relevant question to home gardeners, especially when you start thinning your carrots so the ones that remain can swell to their full underground potential. That’s a lot of waste.

If you do a web search about carrot greens you get a lot of conflicting and confusing information. Some say you can, others warn you to never eat them.

If you’re a small-scale gardener, and hate to waste what you’ve grown, you’ve probably eyed them with some interest. There does tend to be a lot of them.

What's in them?
Scientifically, carrot greens are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. They contain six times the vitamin C of the root and are a source of potassium and calcium. 

For me, they’ve always ended up in the compost bin. I haven’t ever eaten them because, until this year, I have never grown them. Apparently they are quite bitter. Aside from all the good things in them, nature does have a way of telling you to avoid certain things. The bitter taste is because of the presence of nitrates and alkaloids.

Alkaloids are a class of nitrogen-based plant compounds that can have significant physiological affects on humans. Alkaloids include many drugs, like morphine and quinine, and poisons such as atropine and strychnine.

Nitrates have been used for a very long time to treat heart conditions. They have the ability to reduce the absorption of oxygen in the blood. Infants are particularly susceptible to this action. It’s called “blue baby syndrome.”

Although the toxicity of modern carrots is apparently not as strong as the wild version, they still do have alkaloids and nitrites. But nowhere have I found the actual levels of these compounds in modern carrot greens.

Are you sensitive?
I suppose there's no way to really find out unless you expose yourself to alkaloids and nitrites. But is that wise? Would you go walking in unknown water to discover if there's broken glass?

I have read that people with sensitive skin can actually break out in a rash if exposed to carrot tops. If ingested by sensitive people, they can also experience side effects ranging from a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, agitation and possibly even death. 

According to the University of Idaho extension office, the risk of death by nitrate poisoning is highest in pregnant women, young children, and individuals with immune disorders. I do believe, though, that it is very rare and has to be in pretty high levels.

I have a sensitivity to quinine. If I drink tonic water I have what feels like a panic attack, including increased heart rate and agitation that results in a feeling of anxiety. So no gin and tonics for me. If I take penicillin-based medicine I break out in welts. So it seems I am one of those who may be sensitive to carrot tops.

There’s also the fact that commercial producers often spray pesticide on carrot tops because they are so (very) seldom eaten. This woudn’t be the case in a home, organic garden.

Counter to all the doom and gloom, the Carrot Museum in the UK (yes, there’s a carrot museum and they are online) strongly promotes carrot leaves as not only being edible but highly nutritious. In blog posts, the New Your Times (anti) and Smithsonian (pro) have also waded into the issue.

Other varying sources note that the greens from carrots are fine to eat and that they can be  added to soups and casseroles, or even made into pesto. I would say pesto would be quite a high concentration. You can quickly find hundreds of recipes.

It’s interesting to see that carrot tops spur such lively debate. Who would have thought.

Since the jury is so firmly out, there’s no recipe today. In the interest of safety (not least my own) I think mine will continue to go into the compost.


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