As a child I can recall my grandmother telling me to finish the carrots on my plate because carrots are good for the eyes, and help you see better. Years later I discovered carrots are indeed beneficial for eyes because of their high concentration of Vitamin A in the form of beta carotene.
But the Smithsonian Magazine points out that while carrots may be good for our eyes, the beta carotene in carrots does nothing to improve night vision — a pervasive myth that began during World War II.
The story behind the birth of the carrot night vision myth is an interesting one. John Stolarczyk, curator of the World Carrot Museum, claims the myth was popularized by Britain’s Ministry of Information in an attempt to keep secret a then new technology critical to an Allied victory.
During the 1940 Blitzkrieg, the Luftwaffe often struck at night. In order to make it more difficult for the German planes to hit targets, the British government issued citywide blackouts.
In an effort to fight off the German fighters, the Royal Air Force developed a new, secret radar technology called Airborne Interception Radar (AI), first used by the RAF in 1939. The on-board radar had the ability to locate enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel.
According to Stolarczyk’s research, obtained from the files of the Imperial War Museum, the Mass Observation Archive, and the UK National Archives, to prevent the Germans from learning about the AI radar system, the Ministry invented a phony cover story about carrots.
Britain’s Ministry told newspapers that the reason for their success was because pilots like night fighter ace, John Cunningham, nicknamed “Cat’s Eyes”, ate an excess amount of carrots. Cunningham was the first to shoot down an enemy plane using AI. He’d later score a total of 20 kills—19 of which were at night.
The ruse, meant to send German tacticians on a wild goose chase, says Stolarczyk.
“I have no evidence they [the Germans] fell for it, other than that the use of carrots to help with eye health was well ingrained in the German psyche. It was believed that they had to fall for some of it,” Stolarczyk wrote, as he reviewed Ministry files for his upcoming book, tentatively titled How Carrots Helped Win World War II.
“There are apocryphal tales that the Germans started feeding their own pilots carrots, as they thought there was some truth in it.”
The Germans may or may not have fallen for the ruse, but the British public definitely did and it was generally accepted that eating carrots would help them see better during the citywide blackouts.
Advertisements with the slogan “Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout” appeared everywhere.
Families were encouraged to start “Victory Gardens” and try new recipes using surplus foods as substitutes for foods that were rationed. Carrots were promoted as a sweetener in desserts instead of sugar, which was rationed to eight ounces per adult per week.
The British Government disseminated leaflets filled with recipes for carrot pudding, carrot cake, carrot marmalade and carrot flan. “Carrolade” was made from rutabagas and carrots.
According to Stolarczyk, the Ministry of Food encouraged so much extra production of the vegetable that by 1942, they had a 100,000 ton surplus of carrots.