You can probably remember at least one instance from your childhood when adults conned you into eating carrots with the promise that they would make your eyesight better.
The person pushing the carrots would mention beta-carotene and vitamin A, lending credibility to their argument, and you’d chomp away at the orange root-crop like Bugs Bunny without asking for further evidence.
Well, unless you were suffering from severe vitamin A deficiency, you were being deceived. Misled. Hoodwinked.
The notion that carrots improve your vision, especially night vision, is a myth perpetuated by the UK’s Ministry of Food during World War II. The Royal Air Force (RAF) may have used this myth to help obfuscate new technology that helped them defend against German bombers, too.
“Vitamin A is really important, there’s no question about that,” the National Eye Institute’s Dr. Emily Chew explained to Scientific American.
“Somewhere on the journey the message that carrots are good for your eyes became disfigured into improving eyesight,” clarified John Stolarczyk of the World Carrot Museum in an interview with Smithsonian.com‘s K. Annabelle Smith.
The U.K. Ministry of Food was initially responsible for linking carrots and improved vision. In 1941, Minister of Food Lord Woolton implemented the Dig For Victory Campaign similar to the victory gardens enacted in the U.S. As a part of this campaign, he encouraged British citizens to plant gardens and eat their homegrown crops.
“This is a food war,” Woolton told his countrymen, this according to Smithsonian.com. “Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping. The battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden. Isn’t an hour in the garden better than an hour in the queue?”
Within the campaign, characters like Doctor Carrot came to prominence, as did posters like these, boasting how carrots are good for eyes.
A Sophisticated Deecoy by the RAF?
Around the same time, German bombers were conducting regular night bombing raids against the UK, flying across the English Channel and targeting British military installations and towns.
Suddenly, though, the British got very good at shooting down these bombers.
The real reason the RAF got so good at shooting down enemy planes was that they were flying with Airborne Interception Radars aboard their planes.
Another Smithsonian.com contributor, Dan Lewis, writes that “The RAF told newspapers that some pilots were better shots at night than during the day. As the story went, the thing that set them apart was that the night-flying aces ate extra carrots in an effort to improve their vision in the dark.”
Whether members of the RAF brass were simply being coy or intentionally deceptive is somewhat beside the point—the fib worked.
“I have no evidence they fell for it,” Stolarczyk told Smithsonian.com‘s Smith, “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.”
Indeed, the Carrot Museum curator continued, “There are apocryphal tales that the Germans started feeding their own pilots carrots, as they thought there was some truth in it.”
Bryan Legate, of the RAF Museum in London, denies that carrots had the purpose of being an intentional decoy.
“I would say that whilst the [British] Air Ministry
“The German intelligence service
Important? Yes. Improvement, though?
Vitamin A is essential to maintaining good eye health. In fact, extreme vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness in children. Nevertheless, vitamin A is only beneficial to a point—too much can be toxic!
There’s no evidence that carrots can do much to improve your eyesight, except for people who are significantly undernourished when it comes to vitamin A.
“I don’t have any numbers to give you about how many carrots you should eat per day, but everything should be balanced in moderation,” Dr. Chew told Scientific American.
So eat your carrots, but don’t go to bed thinking you can wake up in the middle of the night with night vision. That’s just old British propaganda.