Colourful Foods = Healthy diet?
Is there really a connection between healthy eating and food colour?
Could it be that simple? Is there really a connection between healthy eating and food colour?
Several indicators would seem to suggest so, from modern marketing and solid science to good old ‘gut feelings’ ...but do you know the truth about colourful foods?
Many people seeking to brighten up their diets will turn to a vibrant variety of healthier hues without ever realising why. In fact, there is a strong connection between colourful foods and specific emotions. So, let’s take this chance to explore the rainbow of delicious nutritional value in some of our favourite foods and get to the science hidden within.
Why eat different colour foods?
According to a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Michelle Hauser, we should try to “eat all of the colors of the rainbow” because the colours we see in food “signal the presence of diverse phytonutrients."
Whoa, hold on a second...phyto-what?
Simply put, phytochemicals and phytonutrients are substances plants produce to stay healthy. When eaten by humans, these plants pass on that goodness and provide benefits to human health too. You’ll find phytochemicals and phytonutrients in all sorts of foods, especially brightly coloured fruit and veg. Olives, for example, are rich in oleuropein, ligustroside, oleacein, flavonoids and triterpenoids. As a result, high quality olive oil also contains plenty of the antioxidant phytochemicals hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein.
Good looking, good cooking
Chemistry aside, there are strong psychological factors at play in colourful food and drink too. Presenting a plate of food full with a wide palette of colours can vastly increase its appeal to the consumer. This attraction to bright and varied colours in turn increases our appetite and drives us to eat the variety of foods our bodies need for healthy maintenance and growth.
So, let's take a closer look at some of the colours we find in food, and exactly what those colours mean for our heads, hearts, tums and bums.
As well as being very eye-catching, the colour red represents ‘passion’ and is a known appetite trigger that makes us hungry. This is one of the reasons many fast food brands and restaurants use red in their branding. In terms of health benefits, red foods are known to contain powerful antioxidants including lycopene (in tomatoes), anthocyanins (strawberries), ellagic acid (pomegranate) and astaxanthin (prawns). Natural astaxanthin is the most powerful antioxidant known to science.
Orange foods are super high in carotenoids, such as alpha-carotene and beta-carotene.
It’s the beta-carotene that gives orange fruits and vegetables their vibrant colour. In our bodies, beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A where it assists in hormone production and helps keep our eyes healthy. This is where we get the saying that carrots will help you to see in the dark!
Yellow is seen as a ‘happy’ or ‘positive’ colour and is therefore used widely in food production and marketing. Just like orange foods, beta-carotene is the agent responsible for giving yellow fruit and vegetables their unmissable hue. Yellow foods like sweetcorn, papaya and egg yolk are rich in the phytochemical beta-cryptoxanthin too. Like beta-carotene, our bodies can convert beta-cryptoxanthin into vitamin A. However, this antioxidant is fat-soluble and will not break down much when cooking. In order to absorb the beta-cryptoxanthin it is essential that your diet contains good fat, like extra virgin olive oil.
We’ve all heard the expression ‘eat your greens’ - but do you know the reason why green foods are so good for us? Chlorophyll is the chemical which gives green plants their distinct healthy colouring, but green fruits and vegetables are rich in sulforaphane, glucosinolate, lutein, zeaxanthin, calcium and potassium. Researchers suggest that sulforaphane can help protect against blood-vessel damage and certain cancers, and there is evidence to suggest lutein- and zeaxanthin-rich vegetables could slow the progression of some eye disease.
Top green foods to add to your diet? Apples, asparagus, pears, avocados, celery, leeks, cavolo nero, lettuce, limes, mangetout, watercress, courgettes, cucumbers, green grapes, sugar snap peas, and olives!
Blue (and Purple) foods
One of the rarest colours to appear in nature, blue is not always the most enticing colour in foods. In fact, it is often employed in weight-loss products because of its effectiveness as an appetite suppressant. Purple on the other hand is much more appealing to our senses, despite not being too far removed from blue in terms of nutritional value. The rich blue and purple colour comes from Anthocyanins, very potent antioxidants. These phytochemicals may play a key role in preventing cell damage. Purple and blue foods tend to be higher in nitrates which could reduce blood pressure.
Top blue/purple foods to add to your diet? Aubergines, blackberries, blackcurrants, beetroot, spinach, cavolo nero, purple grapes, red cabbage, olives, cauliflower, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, asparagus, and carrots.
White / Cream foods
Anthoxanthins are the pigments that create the colours in white or cream foods, which are also packed with often-overlooked goodness. For example, potatoes may get pushed aside for not qualifying as one of your 5-a-day, but the starchy spud is one of the biggest sources of vitamin C in our diets. They are also packed with anthoxanthins and potassium, an important mineral for normal heart and muscle function. What’s more, researchers suggest that anthoxanthins may reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease (CVD), as well as helping to prevent inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
While there is clearly a lot to be said for the individual value of colourful food groups, there is no doubt that the healthiest diets comprise a combination of all. To encourage a healthy lifestyle, and to avoid getting too much or too little of one particular group of nutrients, always look to follow a balanced diet, ideally supported by exercise.