Can Carrots Make You See Better?
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When we talk about food being good for health, one of the ‘facts’ we reach back to is the knowledge that carrots are good for your eyesight because they’re packed with vitamin A. In fact, most children around the world are coaxed (read: threatened) to eat more carrots by their parents. Because what self-respecting child enjoys carrots, right? Well, it turns out that ‘fact’ is based on wartime propaganda from, who else, the British.

In September 1940, as World War II raged on, Nazi Germany’s air force (the Luftwaffe) launched the Blitz – a massive bombing campaign against London and several other towns across the south of England. The Blitz was meant to pulverize the British people into submission and force a surrender. France had fallen to Germany in June 1940, and Hitler’s soldiers had no reason to believe England wouldn’t as well. Hundreds of German bombers and fighter planes rained down hell on the English cities. As the English air force resisted fiercely during the daytime, the Germans changed strategies and conducted bombing raids at night. It is estimated that London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights.  

Six years prior, British intelligence had received reports that the Germans were developing a "death ray." Yes, a death ray, with radio waves so powerful they could stall a plane’s engines or even set it on fire. On investigating further, they found that the power consumption of such a device would make it impractical. But they realized such technology could also be used to track enemy aircraft before they reached their targets. A prototype was developed by February 1935 and was eventually named Radio Direction and Ranging (RADAR). In 1940, a more compact version was developed that could fit inside fighter planes. This new radar in the aircraft allowed British pilots to hunt and shoot down German planes.  

Britain wanted to keep this new RADAR technology a secret. So, the British Ministry of Information kicked off a campaign of misinformation that attributed the increased success of its pilots to their superior eyesight gained through eating copious amounts of—you guessed it—carrots. The idea that carrots are good for your eyes quickly became a modern myth—carrots improve your eyesight. This was meant to keep the Germans from sniffing around for any new technology that may have been helping British pilots.  

The German planes bombed London for eight months, and during that time the British government ordered residents to turn the lights off at home or cover their windows with blackout curtains so that the German pilots couldn’t spot their targets easily. Such conditions (no lights at night, even on the streets), led to accidents on the streets of London. Over 1,000 people died in such nighttime accidents in the United Kingdom. The Ministry of Information kept up its charade, pasting posters that claimed carrots kept them healthy and helped people see during the blackouts!  

The agriculture ministry joined in, and released a statement agreeing with the Ministry of Information that increasing the intake of carrots could solve the problem of "blackout blindness." Talk about propaganda. One politician came up with a catchy line to push the establishment’s line: "A carrot a day keeps the blackout at bay." Experts say this was part of a larger effort to become self-sufficient in food during the war. Britain was an island and needed to import food, but German ships were destroying a large number of vessels that transported food to the UK.  

As supplies tightened, a rationing system was imposed on food and other commodities. So, the government hoped to encourage people to switch to a more vegetable-based diet, which they could grow themselves. They called this campaign Dig On for Victory, and the home vegetable gardens were to be called Home Victory Gardens. Suddenly, gardening had become a patriotic duty during what they called a "food war." Another politician said, "the battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden." Carrots are easy to grow, nutritious, and sweet in taste. Cartoon characters were created based on carrots, and the government pushed marketing material to encourage the populace to embrace carrots. There was a real push from the authorities to publicize carrot-based recipes like carrot cake, carrot pudding, carrot marmalade, even carrot fudge and a beverage made from carrots. Lollipops made way for carrots on a stick as a candy for children.  

The campaign was a big success, and by 1942, the country had a 100,000-ton surplus of carrots. But did the Germans buy this propaganda? Historians believe it is unlikely. The Germans were aware of ground-based RADAR in the United Kingdom and would not have been surprised to learn of an aircraft version of the technology. In fact, they had their own airborne radar. The only ones who fell for the propaganda were the civilians, which is the reason the myth persists to this very day. Hey, we’re not saying you should throw away your carrots. Carrots do benefit those suffering from a vitamin A deficiency. But their magical benefits—like superior night vision for pilots—are a bit overstated.