“Carrots help you see in the dark”. It’s one of nutrition’s most pervasive adages, and it’s almost completely untrue.
Carrots do contain ample amounts of Vitamin A. While a certain minimum of Vitamin A is required for healthy vision, large doses do not improve your eyes’ function. They certainly aren’t magic bullets, granting night vision to those that feast upon its orangey flesh.
So why do we have this widespread belief, and where did it come from? The answer to both lies in a prominent British propaganda campaign during World War II.
The biggest threat to civilian populations in Great Britain during World War II was the frequent bombing raids by Germany. They proved to have a devastating impact - not just economically, but psychologically.
By 1940, a chain of radar stations was established along England’s south coast. These stations could detect distant German aircraft as they approached.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force fighter planes were being equipped with on-board Airborne Interception Radar (AI). This allowed them to pinpoint German bombers at night-time – a feat that was previously almost impossible.
The British government didn’t want the Germans to know how they were shooting down their bombers in such great numbers. To cover up the truth, they unleashed a nationwide propaganda campaign.
On posters and in newspaper mentions, the claim was repeatedly made that carrots are essential for ‘night sight’ and ‘help you see during the blackout’. One RAF pilot named John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham gained fame for racking up 19 night kills. The secret to his success? According to the Ministry, Cunningham ate an excess of carrots.
Such was the extent of the campaign, that carrot dishes and treats quickly became a mainstay in the British diet. Rather than sugary lollipops (in low supply under rationing laws), children would eat carrot-on-a-stick. Suggestions of a 'carrot pudding' over traditional Christmas pudding proved less popular.
It’s not known for sure whether the Nazi military was fooled into feeding bucket loads of carrots to their pilots. The idea of carrots helping to see in the dark did become prominent among the German population, suggesting it probably had some impact!