Carrots Won’t Improve Your Night Vision, But They Will Fool The Nazis

“You ask ‘What is life?’ That is the same as asking ‘What is a carrot?’ A carrot is a carrot and we know nothing more.” —Anton Chekhov, in a letter to his wife

In A Nutshell

Almost everyone’s been told to eat their carrots, because the Vitamin A–rich vegetables will help protect and improve their vision, allowing them to see better in the dark. While Vitamin A is important in maintaining healthy eyes, the idea that carrots will noticeably improve vision—nighttime or otherwise—is a complete myth. It’s a misconception that was started on purpose, to explain how the Royal Air Force could be so successful at shooting down enemy bombers during the nighttime raids on the English coast during World War II. The real secret was not carrots, but radar.

The Whole Bushel

Vitamin A is good for your eyes, there’s no denying that. Without a healthy supply of Vitamin A in your system, photoreceptors in the eyes can begin to deteriorate and interfere with just how well the eyes process information. But that’s a far cry from carrots improving your vision and even allowing you to see better in the dark—that’s a complete misconception that we’ve all heard.

But as it turns out, that myth isn’t just our parents trying to get us to eat our vegetables.

In 1940, German bombers frequently ran nighttime raids against England. More successful than the German pilots were the Royal Air Force pilots, many of whom chalked up impressive numbers of kills during these nighttime raids. The British Ministry of Information cited a somewhat bizarre reason for their success: carrots.

England was running low on food stores, but one thing that it wasn’t running low on was carrots. The British Ministry of Food started a campaign that encouraged those at home to do all they could to support the war effort—and that meant growing their own food, including carrots. Carrot pudding, carrot marmalade, curried carrot, carrot fudge, and carrot top soup: They were all recipes that were handed out across England to help mothers, housewives, and cooks make the most of their carrot supplies. So it would seem logical that eating all these carrots could be helping the pilots who were flying in defense of the country spot the enemy sooner. Wouldn’t it?

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The carrot story was just a cover for what the British pilots were really using—radar. Radar technology was being fitted to RAF planes, and the military certainly didn’t want the Germans finding out about it. The obvious answer was a bit of tongue-in-cheekery.

Just how much stock the Germans put in the carrot cover story is up for debate, but ironically one place that it did take off was in England. The government had issued orders for city-wide blackouts to prevent the German bombers from easily targeting important places and buildings. So it wasn’t just the pilots that needed a way to see in the dark, it was civilians, too—and carrots were going to give it to them.

With German blockades severely limiting supplies like sugar, meat, and butter, the carrot story provided an added, unexpected bonus by encouraging people at home to re-think how they were eating and what kind of food they were preparing. There were carrot cookbooks and carrot competitions, where people were encouraged to show off their carrot-based concoctions. Even Disney got on board to help sell carrots to the public with a series of cartoons promoting the benefits of the carrots and the leaves.

The country-wide campaign of how carrots improved eyesight and helped everyone see in the dark—especially important during the blackouts—went hand in hand with rationing and making do with foods that weren’t typically in a normal diet but could be efficiently grown at home. Dig for Victory Gardens became incredibly important, and people were reaping the added benefits from carrots even as they were making the best out of a bad situation and doing their part to help the war effort.

And the belief hung on, even well after the war.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: A WWII Propaganda Campaign Popularized the Myth That Carrots Help You See in the Dark
World Carrot Museum: Carrots in World War II
Duke University: Myth or Fact: Eating Carrots Improves Eyesight

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