What is common between an eggplant and a blueberry? Anthocyanins. You would have been right, of course, to answer “their common colour purple” but what you probably didn’t know is that this common property is nature’s way of indicating the presence of the phytochemical anthocyanin.
Phytochemicals are plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties. Plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves but they can protect humans against diseases too. Most phytochemicals have antioxidant activity and protect our cells against oxidative damage and reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Because plants differ in their phytochemical content, it is important to understand the nature’s colour code that provides us with clues as to which phytochemicals are present in which foods.
What do the different colours of fruits and vegetables mean?
- Red vegetables and fruits such as pink grapefruit, tomatoes and watermelons contain lycopene. Lycopene is a very efficient antioxidant that has been known to reduce the risk of prostate, lung and stomach cancers.
- Green vegetables such as spinach, leek, collard greens and kale are rich in lutein. Lutein is best known for lowering the risk of age-related vision loss but it can also reduce the risks of arterial diseases, and even skin cancer and sunburn.
- Yellow and orange vegetables and fruits such as carrots, yams, papayas, and mangoes contain beta-carotene. It is a form of vitamin A. Beta-carotenes are efficient free-radical scavengers, they enhance the immune system, and are known to reduce the risk of lung cancer.
- Blue and purple vegetables and fruits such as blueberries, blue grapes, and eggplants contain anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are ultra-powerful antioxidants that help protect brain tissue and the cells lining the blood vessel walls, and they have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends 7-10 vegetables and fruits for adults. If you are mostly restricting yourself to carrots, peas, lettuce, and potatoes you are missing out big. Your diet should include fruits and vegetables from each colour group. And next time you are at a supermarket and find that the blueberries are too expensive or unavailable, think of the eggplant or red cabbage. And do yourself a favour: don’t waste your money on products that package phytochemical extracts in capsules.