Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of fibre and essential vitamins and minerals which are good for our health. But did you know their secret power is actually in the chemicals they produce!
These chemicals known as phytonutrients give plants their vibrant colours. They allow them to flourish in adverse conditions, ward off predators, and promote quick healing when they get damaged. Plants use these chemicals to survive and when we consume them, we get all the benefits!
The antioxidant power of pigments
The pigments that give each fruit and vegetable its colour act as antioxidants. They work to protect the body from free radical damage, a by-product of bodily processes and environmental toxins. By neutralising free-radicals they prevent premature aging, protect against cancer, inflammation, diabetes and many other diseases.
Ditch the peeler
Colours tend to concentrate in the skins and so do many of the phytonutrients. Keeping the skins on where you can, scrubbing rather than peeling and using the juice and zest from citrus fruits will ensure you get the most from your fruit and vegetables.
Plants over pills
It is best to consume these phytonutrients in their plant form. Scientists have tried isolating the individual chemicals in plants that boost health but rather than having a beneficial effect, in some cases they have caused problems.
When you eat the whole plant, the phytonutrients work in harmony with the other compounds in the plant to boost your health.
How to eat the rainbow
Each colour group has its own unique health boosting qualities. Whilst they work well on their own, eating groups of colours together will boost their powers further. Try to eat the rainbow – or part of it – at each mealtime for double the health benefits.
Read on to find out how the phytonutrient of each colour can boost your health.
Red – Lycopene
- Studies show lycopene is associated with a decreased risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
- Lycopene is the main phytonutrient found in red fruits and vegetables. Sources include tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, strawberries, red peppers. Cherry tomatoes contain the most lycopene.
- Heating lycopene changes its structure making it easier for the body to absorb. Cooking also weakens the cell walls of the plant improving the availability of lycopene. This means you will absorb more lycopene from a cooked tomato than a fresh tomato.
- To absorb even more lycopene, drizzle tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil or eat with a whole fat food such as an avocado. Why? Lycopene is fat-soluble, that means the body absorbs it better when eaten with a small amount of fat.
Orange – Beta-carotene
- Beta-carotene is a plant chemical that is converted into Vitamin A in the body. This has a beneficial effect on our immune system, it promotes healthy skin and is good for eye health.
- Found in sweet potatoes, carrots, orange peppers, butternut squash and pumpkins.
- Also found in dark leafy greens.
- Beta-carotene is another fat-soluble phytonutrient. To maximise your intake try roasting orange vegetables in a little extra virgin olive oil. Serve as a side or mix into salads to add an extra dimension.
Yellow – Zeaxanthin and Lutein
- Zeaxanthin and Lutein play a protective role against the development of macular degeneration in the eyes. They may also help protect against certain cancers, heart disease and stroke.
- High concentrations are found in yellow plants including squash, peppers, lemons and sweetcorn.
- They are also found in green plants such as kale, spinach and courgettes.
- Broccoli, peas, green beans and leafy greens including kale and spinach are all rich sources of chlorophyll.
- Thanks to chlorophyll, plants are able to absorb sunlight during photosynthesis and convert it to energy enabling the plant to grow. To deal with the energy that is produced during photosynthesis, greens are packed with antioxidants. These compounds that protect the plant are beneficial to our health when we eat them.
- Studies have shown chlorophyll may also help reduce the risk of cancer.
- When you eat your greens you really do eat the rainbow. In addition to chlorophyll green foods contain many other pigments which provide further health benefits.
Blue – Anthocyanins
- Blueberries are the richest source of anthocyanins. They are also found in blackcurrants, blackberries and red cabbage.
- Anthocyanins may help to boost brain power and protect against neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s Disease.
- They may also possess other health promoting qualities including protection against inflammation, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The power of plant pigments is amazing and scientists are still discovering what else they can do for us.
Whilst identifying what the colour chemicals can do is helpful, these chemicals work in synergy with the other chemicals in the plant and with the chemicals found in other plants. In other words, they work as a team bringing out the best in each other.
So to ensure you get the full nutritional benefits from eating fruits and vegetables, aim to eat them whole, keep their skins on and eat two or three different colours at each mealtime.
Image 1 Sharon McCutcheon, image 2 Engin Akyurt, image 3 Pixabay and image 5 John Lambeth on Pexels.
Image 4 Alexander-Schimmeck and image 7 Cody Chan on Unsplash.