The color of food you eat is a factor in determining the quality of your diet. And, the quality of your diet can hold the secret to better health. Foods can range in color from white to black. In addition to color making foods look pleasing, the color of foods can be used for healthy menu planning. The types of chemicals found naturally in foods often determine the color of the food. These chemicals are technically called phytochemicals, which is Greek for plant chemicals. What scientists have come to believe is that these natural plant chemicals protect plants from disease. Then, when we eat the plant, we also get some health benefits. In fact, these plant chemicals are emerging in scientific research as key players for health.
Plant chemicals color your food
The roles of plant chemicals seem wide ranging- from protecting our genetic material to fighting inflammation, aging, and disease. In addition to coloring our food, they are responsible for the specific smell a food emits upon cooking. This includes the distinctive odor from cooked broccoli or cauliflower. Do you like hot peppers or the flavors of onions and garlic? It’s all about the plant chemicals present in these foods!
Although we can use color to do a basic “decode” as to which plant chemicals are present in a particular food, it’s important to note that a given food item may have thousands of chemicals. For instance, a tomato may have 1000 or more identifiable plant chemicals. Scientists also feel that the plant chemicals found naturally in food actually work together. This would be an argument against taking individual supplements. Additionally, it’s unclear if supplemental forms of plant chemicals are absorbed as well as the same compounds from food. Mother nature is pretty darn good at packaging up the nutrients found in foods.
Color of food: health benefits of the colors
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Lycopene is a plant chemical that colors foods red. All tomato based foods, pink grapefruit, guava, and watermelon contain lycopene. By acting as a very strong antioxidant and cancer fighter, lycopene protects your health. Early research studies have found that men who ate ten or more servings of tomato based foods or other pink/red foods weekly had a significant reduction in prostate cancer. Some studies also suggest lycopene protects against other cancers such as liver, skin, breast, and lung cancers. Newer research suggests the lycopene derived from tomatoes helped human subjects improve their cholesterol levels.
Heat and oil aid in increasing lycopene absorption. Therefore, Italian cuisine that has both tomatoes and oil is a great way to boost your dietary lycopene absorption.
Anthocyanin is a plant chemical that colors foods dark red to blue. Cherries, blueberries, purple grapes, raspberries, red cabbage, and cranberries are sources of anthocyanin. In addition to being antioxidants, anthocyanins also appear to reduce cholesterol production to help keep our arteries clear. Aiding immunity and boosting production of detoxifying enzymes are other possible health benefits of anthocyanins.
Blueberries, in particular, have been evaluated for their impact on the brain. Years ago researchers fed food rich in blueberry extracts to rats, and fewer age related mental changes were exhibited in contrast to rats that ate regular food. This was the beginning of the “brain superfood” called blueberries. Current research continues to support adding anthocyanin rich foods to the human diet. One recent study supported incorporating blueberry juice concentrate into the diets of older adults of to aid brain function.
The plant chemicals called polyphenols, along with anthocyanins, help color foods black. Foods rich in polyphenols are also rich in antioxidants. Examples of black foods include prunes, dates, blackberries, figs, raisins, black beans, chocolate, and coffee. Dark chocolate is particularly high on the antioxidant chart. Obviously, news every chocoholic loves to hear. And, our morning coffee? Studies have found that coffee polyphenols seem to protect against diabetes and certain cancers such as pancreatic cancer. If you need other beverages high in polyphenols, there is green tea and wine.
The plant chemical beta-carotene colors foods orange. Beta-carotene is the plant derived form of vitamin A. Once eaten, it’s converted to vitamin A that can be used by the body. Beta-carotene rich foods include cantaloupe, acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, guava, mango, sweet potatoes, and apricots.
Key health benefits are that it’s another anti-oxidant. It protects the skin, fights infection, regulates genes, and impacts reproduction. In particular, beta-carotene rich foods offer health benefits against various age related eye diseases.
White foods like garlic, scallions, onions, and leeks contain the plant chemicals allicin and diallyl sulfide. The smell of garlic after cutting is due to the allicin. Allicin may protect against certain cancers as well as decrease blood pressure. Diallyl sulfide also seems to offer protection against certain cancers, in particular stomach cancer.
Green foods contain chlorophyll which may mask other colors such as the orange color of beta-carotene. It is safe to say that green colored foods contain a wide array of many types plant chemicals, vitamins, and minerals. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, green cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts) all contain sulforaphane. This plant chemical may act by detoxifying cancer causing compounds, limiting production of cancer causing hormones, and preventing tumor growth. Green fruits and vegetables are also sources of plant chemicals known to prevent macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the US in those over 60 years of age.
Color of foods: a menu planning tool
Menu planning for a healthy future must include a rainbow of colors. By making sure there is a lot of color in your diet, you are making sure you get a wide spectrum of disease fighting plant chemicals into your body. As you age, you then decrease your chances of heart disease, cancer, infection, eye diseases, and cognitive decline. You can’t go wrong with a plate full of color. It’s the easiest way to improve the quality of your diet.