One of the most enduring and sentimental signs of summer is the arrival of a vibrant variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Rich and robust in flavor and color, many fruits and veggies are prized as much for their attractive appearance as their gastronomic attributes. But much of the time, the external and internal traits of fresh produce are intertwined, ultimately satisfying people’s culinary cravings while enhancing their health.
Bright and beautiful, the colors of fruits and vegetables offer much more than aesthetic value. They are the products of certain phytochemicals – natural plant compounds – which provide the pigments, or the colors, found in fresh produce. Different pigments/colors (red, white and blue, for example) also are responsible for many of the unique and valuable health benefits of fruits and veggies, as researchers at N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) continue to discover.
All fruits and vegetables are beneficial to human health in some way. And the phytochemicals and nutrients within them work together in synergy, which means that as food digests, two or more nutrients combine to do what neither could do as well by itself. Understanding all of the healthy compounds in fresh produce – including the ones responsible for pigment – can be overwhelming, but that’s exactly what PHHI researchers are doing.
As a result, science has shown that the colors of fruits and vegetables say a lot about their health benefits.
The plant compounds responsible for red pigments, as well as blues and purplish tones, are anthocyanins. Research shows that this compound is effective against cancer, aging and neurological diseases, chronic inflammation and diabetes. Red fruits and vegetables with high levels of anthocyanins include:
- Red Cabbage
Lycopene is another red (and orange/yellow) pigment found in produce. Lycopene has been shown to help fight many forms of cancer as well as prevent and treat illnesses like heart diseases, infertility, diabetes, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, and osteoporosis. The compound also acts as an internal sunscreen, protecting the skin. Lycopene can be found in:
- Red Bell Pepper
- Sweet Potato
White fruits and vegetables, though colorless, actually contain many vitamins and phytochemicals, including allacin. White, tan and brown produce help lower blood pressure and keep cholesterol levels healthy that already are in the normal range, as well as maintain heart health and lower the risk of some types of cancers.
- White Corn
In addition to red, anthocyanins also give some fresh produce a blue or purple color. These foods protect against cancer and are healthy for the heart and memory. Blue or purplish fruits and vegetables with high levels of anthocyanins include:
- Concord Grape
- Muscadine Grape
- Purple Sweet Potato
Download the Goodness Grows in Living Color (PDF), developed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Discover what benefits the colors in your favorite fruits or vegetables provide, and make as colorful a plate as possible!
Writer: Justin Moore