Ever since my carrot top salsa recipe, I’ve received a great number of emails asking if (or even insisting that) carrot tops are toxic.
I’ll just get straight to the point: This popular myth has been perpetuated through continual hearsay and personal anecdotes, and I have yet to find any scientific study that says, once and for all, carrot tops will kill us. (After all, I’m still here despite making bottomless jars of carrot top salsa and using carrot tops in my salads and soups… as are my loved ones.)
Much of this ballyhoo originated from a 2009 New York Times blog post where the author (who even admitted to eating his own carrot tops but lived to tell about it) presented no actual evidence that they might be toxic, and whose sole source did not even claim that carrot tops were toxic. To quote directly from the post, “The young greens I’d ingested may have been harmless […] But a few of the carrot’s close relatives are not to be trusted.”
So there you have it. That post was not about the toxicity of carrot tops at all, despite having a sensationalist title of “The Toxic Salad.”
But the rumors persist, so I thought I’d bust the most common myths I’ve seen online in the hopes that people will share the knowledge and not be afraid of these delicious and underused greens!
Myth #1: Carrot greens contain alkaloids (which are toxic bitter compounds produced by a plant) and all alkaloids are bad because substances like caffeine and cocaine are alkaloids.
Surprise — all leafy greens (including “good for you” greens like spinach and kale) contain varying levels and types of alkaloids, some higher than others. Alkaloids are chemical compounds believed to be part of a plant’s defense mechanisms.
Our beloved brassicas and nightshades all contain tropane alkaloids (a class that includes cocaine) and you might be surprised to learn that nicotine is naturally present in cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. In fact, eggplants have some of the highest levels of nicotine in the nightshade family — but you needn’t panic, as you’d have to eat over 20 pounds of eggplants in one sitting to ingest the same amount of nicotine found in a cigarette.
If you’ve ever wondered why chocolate always makes you feel so good, that’s because it contains another alkaloid, theobromine, which works as a mild stimulant. All said, alkaloids are found in many of our foods but not in amounts that are actually effective, and not all alkaloids are even toxic; but if consumed in gross quantities, anything — even water — can become “toxic.”
The key is consuming in moderation. Different bodies handle foods in different ways. It’s probably not a good idea to juice an entire head of carrot greens in your smoothie, just as it’s not a good idea to eat spinach salads every day. In fact, people who go on green juice diets are often advised to rotate their greens frequently in the rare event their bodies start accumulating the same alkaloids (which could lead to adverse reactions). This is not to say you should stay away from greens at all; just eat a good variety of them so you get lots of different alkaloids in different quantities.
(In case you’re curious, the alkaloids found in carrot tops are pyrrolidine and daucine.)
As for the misconception that bitterness means it’s bad for you — quite the contrary. Bitterness is a subjective taste that’s passed down in your genes. (And if bitterness equated to bad, I’d surely miss my collard greens, brussels sprouts, radicchio, and arugula!)
Myth #2: Carrots are related to Queen Anne’s lace and hemlock, which are poisonous.
It’s true that the modern carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) was cultivated from Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), an ancestor of the vegetable. In fact, the taproot of today’s Queen Anne’s lace is edible, but it won’t taste anything like the carrot root you’re used to, which has been bred over centuries to be fleshier and sweeter.
Queen Anne’s lace is not poisonous, and the roots, leaves, flowers, and seeds are in fact edible (though not likely to be tasty anyway). The problem is that its foliage and flowers closely resemble poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), which grows wild as a weed and contains toxins that can cause respiratory failure if eaten. Since the olden days, Queen Anne’s lace has been used medicinally (for everything ranging from urinary tract problems to experimental treatments for cancer) and even today, some herbalists consider the seeds to be a potential natural contraceptive (though you would have to eat a certain amount of seeds every day for a specific period to see this effect).
Queen Anne’s lace also looks a lot like wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), another noxious weed. The leaves of wild parsnip contain chemical compounds in the sap called furocoumarins, which cause certain people’s skin to react in sunlight. Some reactions are more severe than others, ranging from a mild itch in the sun to heavy blistering of the skin. (The root of wild parsnip, on the other hand, is safe and edible.)
Despite all of them belonging to the same family (Apiaceae, known as the parsley family), a distant relation to poison hemlock does not make carrot tops, Queen Anne’s lace, or wild parsnip poisonous.
The lesson here? Don’t go picking wild plants that look like carrots.
Myth #3: Supermarkets don’t sell carrot tops, so they must be toxic.
Some supermarkets do sell carrots with the greens attached (though they usually don’t look attractive enough to eat) and most farmers’ markets sell them as well. The reason we don’t find carrot tops more often is because even after they leave the ground, the greens continue to draw moisture and energy from the root, so they’re removed to preserve the carrot. (If you grow your own carrots at home, always cut off the greens after harvest and store them the same way you’d store salad greens.)
Judging by the looks of supermarket carrot tops, this might be a packaging and transportation issue as well, since they tend to be a bit raggedy by the time they reach produce shelves.
Myth #4: There have been accounts of people getting sick from eating carrot tops.
This is entirely possible and probably even true. It’s also possible and probably true that these people have either an allergy or an intolerance to carrot tops.
There’s an important distinction between food allergy and food intolerance. Food allergy causes an immune system response to a particular food protein; the immune system overreacts and interprets the food as harmful, resulting in itching, swelling, trouble breathing, and even death in extreme cases. Food intolerance occurs when the body lacks an enzyme to process a particular food, causing unpleasant symptoms like nausea, abdominal cramping, or acid reflux; these are not immune system responses and are not life-threatening. Another reaction with similar symptoms is food poisoning, which is caused by bacteria or toxins. This may be possible with commercial carrots that have been heavily sprayed with pesticides (since the greens are most affected), but likely not a problem with organic or homegrown carrots.
A true food allergy to carrots is uncommon, but an interesting reaction called oral allergy syndrome (OAS) can occur in people who are allergic to birch pollen and mugwort pollen. The major allergen in carrots, a protein called Dau c 1, is so similar in structure to the molecules in birch pollen and mugwort pollen that the body can’t tell the difference. That means if you have an allergy to either, eating carrots can trigger a reaction in the form of itching or swelling of the mouth or throat. According to WebMD, the symptoms of OAS become less severe when you cook the trigger food because heat alters the offending protein.
All this basically means a person could have an unexpected cross-reactive allergy, food allergy, or food intolerance to carrot tops (as one might have with dairy or wheat) — but that does not make them toxic.
Myth #5: But there has to be a good reason why we (as in we in the US) don’t eat carrot tops!
Why carrot tops are generally not eaten in our culture is a mystery to me (though they’re considered a market vegetable in many parts of Europe). I’ve posed this same question when it comes to broccoli greens, which are very edible and very delicious (but never seen in the store). Same goes for radish leaves and the large outer leaves of cabbage; I consider them a wonderful bonus of growing your own food. Just because these things are not culturally popular does not mean they’re not nutritious or can’t be eaten; in fact, the leaves of root vegetables tend to be more healthful than the roots themselves.
I’d guess it has to do with taste, as the flavor and texture of carrot tops can take some getting used to… if all you’re used to are the tasteless, tender iceberg lettuces from the store. (And even though icebergs are laughably low in flavor and low in nutritional value, they’re the most popular lettuce in the US — which says something about our society!)
I consider carrot tops to be more of an accent and use them that way to add earthiness to a recipe. Carrot tops taste like a very concentrated carrot, so they’re ideal in soups, salads and sandwiches in small quantities. To get past the texture, the leaves should be de-stemmed and chopped up finely. Beyond that, you can use carrot tops however you’d like — and rest assured you’ll still be standing the next day!