CARROTS could be key to beating cancer, according to scientists.
The natural compounds, known as polyacetylenes, protect the plant from attack by pests and diseases. They occur only in vegetables of the carrot family and a few other closely related species such as ginseng.
Previous tests have shown the compounds can have beneficial effects in tackling inflammation and cancer. They were also found to reduce cancer growth in rats.
Now researchers have launched a three-year study to measure the effects of root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and celeriac on cancer and inflammatory diseases like arthritis.
A team of food scientists, chemists and doctors will recruit scores of volunteers to take part in a dietary trial.
Project supervisor Dr Kirsten Brandt, senior lecturer in the university’s School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, said: “After seeing the positive effects of feeding carrots in the animal experiments, it is important to test if it also works in humans, in particular to find out how much carrot we must eat to obtain a health benefit.”
Dr Wendy Wrieden, of the university’s Human Nutrition Research Centre, said: “We know that eating a variety of vegetables and fruit can reduce the risk of some cancers and other chronic diseases.
“Hopefully this work will give us a clearer picture of the role of vegetables and perhaps provide encouragement to the public to eat more.”
The team will investigate how much of the polyacetylenes are absorbed into the body when the vegetables are eaten raw, boiled or fried and in large or small pieces.
The water or oil in which they have been cooked will also be tested to see if there are any health benefits in re-using it in stews or soup.
Previous research by Dr Brandt found that carrots contain the anti-cancer compound falcarinol, which reduced tumours in rats by a third. But falcarinol, like vitamin C and sugar, is soluble and lost when carrots are boiled.
At the time, Dr Brandt said the secret of healthier and tastier carrots was to use a bigger pan so they can be cooked whole.
She said that increases the anti-cancer properties in a cooked portion by 25 per cent.
The latest study is being partly funded by the British Carrot Growers’ Association.
Martin Evans, managing director of co-operative Freshgro, said: “It has long been accepted that carrots are very good for us but this research project will go much further in improving our knowledge and awareness of the health benefits of this group of root vegetables.”
Research in China has already shown that carrots, best known for supposedly helping us to see in the dark, can reduce the risk of prostate cancer by a fifth. Men who ate carrots at least three times a week were 18 per cent less likely to develop a tumour.
And in the US, researchers at Harvard University found women who ate at least five carrots a week were nearly two-thirds less likely to have a stroke than those who ate them only once a month.