Summer Party Tips: Baby Carrots (Using for Dips) Hot Dogs (Ditching the Guilt), and Watermelon (Finding a Ripe One)

watermelon, carrotsSummer parties often involve dipping, grilling, and happily biting into fresh fruit. Here are some useful things to know about those mini-carrots perfect for dipping into guacamole or hummus, those hot dogs sizzling invitingly on the grill, and that giant watermelon waiting to be sliced. Nothing shouts summer quite as loudly as these foods.  Let's answer some FAQs about these ubiquitous treats.  Note: some questions express concerns about harmful substances in these beloved edibles. 




Are baby carrots grown small, or are they cut from larger carrots?


The answer is not either/or; it's both.  There are baby carrots, and then there are baby-cut carrots.  As Wikipedia explains, some baby carrots are the immature roots of carrot plants; some are grown to their small size as a specialty crop. On the other hand, baby-cut carrots (shown in the photo at the beginning of this article, are fully grown carrots cut to a smaller size.  They are usually cut from carrots that are misshapen or slightly rotted.  This is a way to keep from wasting the good part of the carrot and also satisfy consumers' taste for small carrots that are ideal for a healthy lunchbox snack and for dipping.  To see a photo of both types, go to the "Baby Carrot" write-up on Wikipedia.  The little carrots I purchased recently were correctly labeled "baby-cut carrots," but sometimes these are labeled simply "baby carrots," thus creating confusion among consumers.


Are the baby-cut carrots really treated with chlorine, and, if so, are they safe to consume? (a site that tells readers whether rumors are truth or myth) has received many questions like this from worried consumers.  Here's the site's answer:  The carrots now used to make "baby-cut carrots" have been specially bred to contain more sugar than their standard-sized cousins because this extra sweetness appeals more strongly to children. As an antimicrobial treatment to minimize or reduce the contamination of the finished product, cocktail carrots can be treated with chlorine. Those that are will be subsequently rinsed with potable water to remove the excess chlorine before being packaged."  Snopes goes on to explain that, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the use of chlorine as an antimicrobial treatment is a currently accepted practice in the processing of all fresh-cut ready-to-eat vegetables.  The same process is used to treat drinking water, but the carrots are given a subsequent rinse.


Why do some packaged baby-cut carrots have a white film and some feel slimy? Do either of these characteristics mean I should throw them out?


According to, the white film (or blush) "is caused by dehydration of the cut surface. Baby-cut carrots are more likely to develop this because the entire surface is a cut surface.  To prevent this from happening, store them in the fridge in the high-humidity bin. 


Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter says that the white cuticle (which is like a dried skin) is probably not a health risk, but, if the carrots feel slimy, she recommends discarding them since that's indicative of the presence of bacteria.  Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein agrees.


Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks has another explanation for the white film: "Carrots are peeled (outer layer removed) using a caustic substance [a material that can burn or destroy living tissue].  This can leave a soap-like film on the surface if the carrots are not washed well.  If the caustic water dries on the carrot, then you get the white film.  This is not a safety issue, only an aesthetic issue."  However, Dr. Regenstein says, "This would be a film, not the "white dots" that sometimes appear. I would not be comfortable with excess caustic being consumed by young children."


Who makes baby-cut carrots, and are they highly processed?


One of the big producers of this product is Bolthouse Farms.  The company markets carrots in a variety of sizes and shapes.  It also has organic cut carrots as well as other products for example, smoothies, juices, and dressings.  For more information, call 1-800-467-46831-800-467-4683 .  When I called and asked about the processing of the baby carrots, I was told that no preservatives are used and no bleach (chlorine).  In fact, the customer service person I spoke with said the water the carrots were washed in contained less chlorine than tap water.


To read more about carrots, go to "Carrots" in the product section of this site.  You'll find information about carrots and eyesight, nutrition, handling, and--surprise--a carrot museum!




Should I feel guilty about allowing my kids to eat hot dogs? 


The short answer is no, not unless they're eating them very often.  "Everything in moderation,"
 says Dr. Cutter. Parents worry about the nitrates/nitrites in hot dogs. [Once consumed, nitrates are converted to nitrites in the human body.] Dr. Cutter points out, "There are many leafy vegetables that contain more nitrates than are in a hot dog." Dr. Regenstein points out, "Celery contains about 8 times as much nitrate!"


Hot dogs are high in fat and salt, but, it won't hurt you or your family to consume them occasionally. Nutritionists and food scientists commonly recommend limiting hot dog consumption to once or twice a month.


Shelf Life Advice has extensively covered hot dogs. Our longest piece on this topic is "Hot Dogs: What You Should Know about Them."  This article discusses concerns such as nitrites, the listeria risk for pregnant women, the choking hazard for young children as well as information on shelf life and proper handling.  


Aren't the nitrites in hot dogs cancer-causing?


If you're worried about this, read food scientist Dr. Susan Brewer's discussion of the topic at "Are the preservatives in hot dogs and similar products health risks?"  You'll find her explanation reassuring. For more information about nitrates and nitrites, see the Nitrate Fact Sheet posted by the California Department of Public Health.




Why do we associate watermelons with summer?


Watermelons are warm-season crops.  They grow best when the temperature is between 70-85°F. Dr. Hicks says that from May to October, Americans enjoy good watermelons grown in the U.S. and Mexico.  In the winter, watermelon quality in the U.S. is poorer because the fruit must be shipped from faraway places.


Watermelons are indigenous to tropical Africa and are found wild on both sides of the equator.  They have been cultivated by humans for about 4,000 years, spreading from ancient Egypt to India and Asia and later widely distributed around the world by Africans and by European colonists. Today, they are grown in 44 U.S. states. 


How much does the average watermelon weigh? How big can watermelons grow to be?


According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, "Watermelons commonly weigh 18 to 25 pounds, with the world's record watermelon tipping the scales at 291 pounds."


When I look for a ripe watermelon, what, exactly, am I trying to find?


You're hoping to bring home a melon that's sweet, juicy, and firm (not mushy or mealy) but not crunchy. 


Is it a good idea to leave a whole, uncut watermelon on the counter for a few days in order to ripen it? 


You can leave a whole melon on the counter, but it won't ripen. Watermelons don't ripen any further once they've been picked. The best place to leave it is in an area that's 50°-60°F.


If I can't ripen it at home, how do I select a watermelon that's already ripe?


Here's the advice that's generally given, but we hasten to say that it won't always get you the perfect, sweet, juicy, firm-but-not crunchy watermelon that you desire. Finding a ripe watermelon is a challenge even for experts.


 Here are the recommended steps as outlined by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture website:

  • ŸThe color of the skin becomes dull.
  • The skin "becomes resistant to penetration by the thumbnail and is rough to the touch."
  • The bottom of the melon (where it lies on the soil) turns from light green to a light yellow. [This is called the "field spot". The change to a light yellow indicates that the watermelon was sitting in the field long enough to ripen before being harvested.]
  • The methods listed above are more reliable than the recommended "thumping" method, which says that if you knock on the watermelon and get a dull (rather than a hollow) sound, it's more likely to be ripe.  


To see a New York Times video on selecting a watermelon, go to "Choosing the Perfect Watermelon."  More tips from this video:

  • Choose a melon that feels heavy for its size.
  • A skin with some flaws is more likely to be ripe than one that looks perfect. The marks suggest that insects have been biting on it, and they're attracted to the ripe ones.


Note that the farmer interviewed for this video doesn't trust thumping. Also, note that, even using her recommended methods, the watermelon chosen as best wasn't perfect.  So don't berate yourself (or Shelf Life Advice) if all the tips above don't give you a delicious melon.  But try them. My alternative suggestion: Ask someone who works in the produce department to select your melon for you.  That's what I do.


Will I get better quality if I buy a whole watermelon or one that's been cut in the store?


Dr. Regenstein says, "Once cut, the clock on spoilage starts.  And this is accelerated by the amount of time it is not under refrigeration." In other words, get that cut melon chunk home and refrigerated quickly, and use it within the next day or two.


Will watermelon remain good longer if I cut it in small pieces or large ones?


We know that refrigerating a big chunk of watermelon with its skin often creates a space problem.  However, food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter says this: "The larger the pieces, the less surface area for bacteria to grow on. Refrigerate it in larger pieces.  Then cut off the outside edge and cut it into smaller pieces just before serving." Remember to wash the whole watermelon before cutting so that bacteria from the exterior don't get into the fruit. This is a good procedure for any melon or fruit that you are cutting with a knife.


Are watermelons nutritious, or are they just sugar water?


Watermelons are 92% water, but they are also nutritious. The nutrients are believed to be good for circulation and for sore muscles. To read more about the possible health benefits, go to "Five Reasons to Eat Watermelon," or just eat it because you love the taste. 


According to this same article, a wedge of watermelon has only 84 calories. Don't ask me how big a wedge this is. Just conclude that this is not a high-calorie food. 


To read more about the proper handling of melons (whole and cut, when to refrigerate, etc.), go to "FAQs on Raw Fruits and Veggies--the Answers Can Protect Your  Wallet and Your Health."




Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science "Carrot and Shtick" "Five Reasons to Eat Watermelon" "How do I pick a watermelon at the supermarket?" "Choosing the Perfect Watermelon" "Watermelons" (University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture)  "Watermelons"



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