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article imageBehind the Rumour of Baby Carrots Being Washed in Chlorine

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Sep 19, 2008 in Food
An e-mail is being circulated that warns consumers against the pre-cut and pre-washed ready-to-eat baby carrots that are so popular in the grocery stores these days.
A friend sent me an e-mail today warning against the consumption of baby carrots:
Baby Carrots and chlorine
The following is information from a farmer who grows and packages carrots for IGA, METRO, LOBLAWS, etc.
The small cocktail (baby) carrots you buy in small plastic bags are made using the larger crooked or deformed carrots which are put through a machine which cuts and shapes them into cocktail carrots. Most people probably know this already.
What you may not know and should know is the following:
Once the carrots are cut and shaped into cocktail carrots they are dipped in a solution of water and chlorine in order to preserve them (this is the same chlorine used in your pool) since they do not have their skin or natural protective covering, they give them a higher dose of chlorine. You will notice that once you keep these carrots in your refrigerator for a few days, a white covering will form on the carrots, this is the chlorine which resurfaces. At what cost do we put our health at risk to have esthetically pleasing vegetables which are practically plastic?
We do hope that this information can be passed on to as many people as possible in the hopes of informing them where these carrots come from and how they are processed. Chlorine is a very well known carcinogen.
In contrast to many e-mails circulating around the Internet, this one is fairly well written, and risks therefore to be taken seriously by a lot of people. However, that does not make it necessarily true. So, what do we have to think about this message?
Are baby carrots really made using larger crooked or deformed carrots? Originally, yes. The baby carrot was invented in 1986 by leading Newhall California carrot producer Mike Yurosek who sought to save at least some of the broken or misshapen carrots that he could not use in his fresh carrot packing line.
In order to make baby carrots, he used an industrial green bean cutter to cut them in pieces of about 5 cm long. He then put them in an industrial potato peeler to peel them and round them a bit. And so, the baby carrot was born.
It is unclear why the author of the e-mail mentions this origin of the baby-cut carrot. Does he or she think that an odd-shaped carrot is bad for one's health in some way? Let's be clear: there is no difference whatsoever in nutritional or health qualities between a perfectly shaped carrot and a crooked or misshaped one.
Now, although baby carrots can be bought, most baby carrots sold in grocery store are also not really baby carrots but normal carrots of the "Imperator" type that have been planted close together to make them long and thin. Once harvested, they are washed, sorted, cut, trimmed, grated, polished and shaped into the small uniform size we find in the grocery store packages.
How can you know if you are buying genuine baby carrots? Easy. Baby carrots are indeed just that: carrots that have been harvested while still very young. Baby-cut carrots are easier to find, and they are the larger carrots that have been shaped into baby carrots.
What about the chlorine? This is true as well. The carrots must be washed with chlorinated water. This water must have a pH (acidity) between 6.0 and 7.0. The concentration of chlorine in the water should be between 100 and 150 ppm (parts per million). The time of contact between the carrots and the chlorinated water should not exceed 5 minutes. This must be removed from the carrots by rinsing with potable water or using a centrifugal drier.
Is this dangerous? No. Chlorination is a well-known and well-tested way to disinfect food products. Our tap water is chlorinated as well. I would nevertheless like to issue a warning. When you disinfect something, that means that you kill the bacteria that are present. Chlorine kills bacteria. It can also kill us, or be very bad for us. The bleach you use to clean and disinfect your toilet, contains chlorine. Do not drink it. This will kill you because it is far more concentrated than we can safely ingest. The chlorine in your tap water and in your baby-carrots, presents no danger whatsoever. It is precisely to make the carrots safe that the chlorine is used.
As a side-note, it is interesting to know that the term chlorine is something of a misnomer. Chlorine, in its natural state, is a highly reactive gas that forms compounds with other products. When chlorine is added to other products, it will react virtually immediately to form compounds such as hypochlorous acid (when chlorine is added to water) and sodium hypochlorite (when chlorine is added to a sodium hydroxide solution). These compounds in turn disinfect the water. When we talk about chlorine, and even about free chlorine, these compounds are usually what we are referring to.
What about the white covering? Is that really the chlorine that resurfaces? No. It is simply the carrot drying out. Try it out for yourself. Take a fresh, normal carrot and cut it in half. Wait. The same white covering (which is officially called white blush) will appear on the cut. Baby carrots will show a lot more white blush for a very simple reason: their skin has been removed and therefore, the entire carrot dries out.
Now, what about the "practically plastic" claim? This means nothing. It doesn't even make sense here. My best guess is that the person who wrote the text, either wanted to make it sound even more terrible, or that he or she had heard a rumour about chlorine being an ingredient in plastics (PVC = polyvinyl chloride is a good example). There is absolutely no plastic in baby carrots.
What about the cancer claim? The question is a valid one, especially because we know that there are certain compounds of chlorine that do cause cancer. Does chlorine cause cancer? No. While medical science is not an exact science, and we must always be vigilant, there is at present no evidence whatsoever that chlorine causes cancer or could be a facilitator for cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not classified chlorine as to its human carcinogenicity. In other words, chlorine is perfectly safe, if it is used appropriately.
The author asks to send her/his "information" to as many people as possible in the hopes of informing them where these carrots come from and how they are processed. Please don't. We all receive more junk mail and spam than we need, and we are already bombarded with more quackery and pseudoscience than we can handle. Do your friends and contacts a favour, and let them out of it!
In short, there is nothing wrong with baby carrots. They are a food that humans have enjoyed for centuries, probably millennia, chock-full of goodness that we need to keep our bodies functioning.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Code of Practice for Minimally Processed Ready-to-Eat Vegetables. (15 November 2005)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Guidelines for the Use of Food Additives and/or Processing Aids Intended for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (27 May 2007)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Chemical Residue Sampling Program (23 July 2008)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Compliance list for Chemical Residue 12-2008. (3 September 2008)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Sampling for Laboratory Testing. (11 December 2001)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Traceback Investigation Guidelines For Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. (27 July 2005)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. General Packaging and Labelling Requirements for Fresh Fruit and Vegetables. (April 2006)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Vegetable Inspection Manual for Carrots. (15 September 2008)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Canadian Import, Export and Interprovincial Requirements for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. (21 December 2007)
USDA. Factors Affecting Carrot Consumption in the United States. (2007)
ATSDR. ToxFAQs™ for Chlorine. (September 2007)
For fun:
Carrot Museum
What if I Choke on a Carrot and Die?
More about Baby carrots, Chlorine, Food safety
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