Phytonutrients: All the Colours of the Rainbow

As the saying goes, “we eat with our eyes”. We’re naturally attracted to brightly coloured foods. In fact we often use the colour and appearance of food as an indicator of quality or freshness. 

Fruits and vegetables play an important role in our health due to their rich content of essential nutrients and phytonutrients. These in turn help prevent or reduce the risk of many chronic diseases including diabetes, obesity, some cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and strokes. Whilst we often emphasize the vitamin and mineral content of plant foods, the real health-boost may come from their phytonutrient content.  

The various bold colours of fruits and vegetables are due to their unique set of health-promoting phytonutrients. There are overlaps between the different foods and their antioxidant content, however there is typically a dominant class of phytonutrient that provides the distinct colour. Plant foods are divided into five colour categories: (1) Blue/Purple, (2) Red, (3) Orange/Yellow, (4) Green, and (5) White/Brown.

1. Blue/Purple Foods

This group of brightly coloured foods are rich in potent antioxidants called Anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are believed to be primarily involved in delaying cell aging and improving heart health by blocking the formation of blood clots. Anthocyanins are also believed to improve memory and cognitive health. 

Foods in the Blue/Purple group include: red grapes, prunes, raisins, dates, blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, elderberries, figs, purple cabbage, purple carrot, and plums.

2. Red Foods

Foods in the Red group are those rich in the carotenoid (phytonutrient group) called Lycopene. Lycopene is another potent antioxidant that hunts down and reduces the presence of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are associated with increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer. Lycopene appears to be particularly protective against prostate cancer, as well as heart and lung diseases. Lycopene may also be involved in protecting the skin against harmful UV radiation.

Foods in the Red group include: beets, cherries, red apples, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, watermelon, red grapes, red onions, red peppers and ruby grapefruit.

3. Orange/Yellow Foods

Orange/Yellow foods are those that are richest in the phytonutrient Beta Cryptoxanthin. This strange sounding phytonutrient is anti-inflammatory, helps to prevent heart disease, and is involved in intracellular communication. Orange/Yellow foods are also associated with improved eye health, lowered cholesterol, healthy joints and tissues, and decreased risk for cancer. 

Foods in the Orange/Yellow group include: banana, pineapple, oranges, yellow pepper, mango, pumpkin, butternut, peaches, corn, cantaloupe, sweet potato, apricots, naartjies and tangerines.

4. Green Foods 

We’re always told to eat more greens because they are such nutrient powerhouses. The dominant phytonutrients in green foods are Sulforaphane, Isocyanate and Indoles. These nutrients are known to inhibit the activity of cancer-causing agents (carcinogens). Sulforaphane deserves a special mention as it has been shown to protect against various types of cancer (including prostate, colon, skin, breast, lung, and stomach). It has also been linked to reduced risk for neurodegenerative disease, and improved brain health.

Foods in the Green group include: spinach, kale, broccoli, artichoke, asparagus, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kiwi fruit, green herbs (mint, rosemary, thyme, sage and basil), avocados and green tea.

5. White/Brown Foods

Last but not least we have the group of foods richest in the phytonutrients allicin, quercetin and kaempferol. These three phytonutrients all act as potent antioxidants and reduce free radicals in the body. Allicin in particular (found in the onion family) has anti-tumor properties. Quercetin has also been shown to lower inflammation, decrease allergy symptoms, support heart health, decrease pain, and protect both skin and liver health. 

Foods in the White/Brown group include: garlic, onion, cauliflower, leek, parsnip, daikon radish and mushrooms.

A Brief Note on Antioxidants and the Coronavirus Outbreak

One of the theories being researched currently is that the primary danger of the coronavirus lies in its ability to trigger what’s known as a “cytokine storm” in the body. Basically this means our bodies mount an overt (more than usual) immune response to fight off the infection, which unfortunately can lead to an increased production of free radicals, inflammation and even tissue damage. 

What could we do to prevent this? Load up on phytonutrient-rich foods that will scavenge your body for free radicals and remove them. Not only will this support your immune system in the short term, it decreases your risk for infection as well as chronic diseases in the future. 

Final Thoughts

When planning your next meal, consider thinking about the colour spectrum you’re serving up. We should all be aiming for at least 5 servings of vegetables and fruits (but mostly vegetables) per day. Challenge yourself to keep the colours varied from one week to the next so that you can load up on all of the healthful phytonutrients that nature has to offer. 

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