Dr Leonard Pike first got interested in carrots 20 years ago when he was struck by the remarkable yellow tone of carrots in Russia where he was on a seed-collecting mission for the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
Before he left the country, Pike gathered up some Russian seed to deposit in the USDA's seed collection. Recently, he obtained some yellow carrot seed for his own planting trials and harvested the crop about a month ago.
He has also added various nutrients to carrots to see what color they would become, maroon, red or orange.
"The interest now is more than the color," said Pike. "Each of those colors indicates that a certain phytochemical is present. My goal is to get one carrot that has them all."
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring compounds that prevent disease. Pike hopes to pack lutein, carotene, anthocyanin and lycopene into one carrot, regardless of what color - or color combination - the carrot turns out to be. Each of those compounds has been shown to ward off various diseases and improve health.
Breeding a better carrot is important, he said, because adding value to something people already eat plenty of means they could be healthier. Americans eat more than five pounds of carrots a year, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service.
In order to decide which carrots to keep in the breeding program, Pike and his colleagues first washed the 250 bushels harvested from a South Texas field, sorted for conformity, tasted for flavor and finally sliced off a chunk to analyze for sugar and phytochemical content.
From that, 80 bushels will planted by mid-April in cages placed around hives of honeybees to allow carrots to pollinate without crossing with unintended varieties.
The process will be narrowed next year, and the researchers are hopeful that the new nutritious carrots could start to go on sale in grocery stores in another year.