Produce is one of the most important parts of our diet, creating a balance of naturally occurring nutrients in our bodies that processed foods cannot. It’s common knowledge that these foods, whether a traditional Washington apple or an exotic Amazonian camu berry, pack the punch when it comes to healthy eating. With juice bars and smoothie franchises popping up left and right, and the emphasis on organically grown produce, plant life is getting its due these days. But without checking your iPhone first, do you know how to navigate the market by color alone? You can discern whether to buy a red pepper or a bunch of spinach for higher vitamin C content just with your eyes after a quick rundown of the produce color wheel.
The pigmentation of fruits and vegetables is directly linked to their nutritional value, providing us an indicator of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants they contain. Many dietitians and health coaches will recommend getting as many colors (at least four) onto your plate at each meal, which provides a diverse range of nutrients. Each color is created by three key forms of pigment:
- Carotenoids: Oranges and yellows
- Flavonoids: Reds, blues, and cream colors
- Chlorophyll: Greens
Carrying an arsenal of health benefits, each color represents a different system to improve and disease to prevent. Nearly every color helps reduce LDL cholesterol, eliminate harmful free radicals, and lower blood pressure. Many also contain vitamin C, which clearly helps build immune function and also acts as a powerful antioxidant. And regardless of the color you choose, you will find a great source of fiber and phytonutrients which lower your risk of cancer, cognitive decline from aging, as well as cataracts.
Nutrition By Color
Fruit and vegetable colors can be divided into five broad or seven more specific groups with shades in between. Depending on who you talk to, the rainbow can be divided in several ways. The five main groups include red, orange-yellow, green, blue-purple, and white. According to Dr. David Heber, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California at Los Angeles, the seven smaller categories better identify the complexities of these foods. He says, ”Not all members of the fruit and vegetable group are alike…They have unique properties that provide combinations of substances with unique effects on human biology.” As such, it is recommended that we start getting more cognizant of our choices instead of blindly picking several servings of produce each day.
Red fruits and veggies get their color from the carotenoid lycopene, which serves as an incredible combatant against unwanted free radicals – the molecules that cause tissue damage, aging, and potentially certain diseases. Lycopene has shown strong evidence of preventing heart and lung disease and prostate cancer. Tomatoes, notably when cooked, as well as watermelon and pink grapefruit are all rich in lycopene, and are some of the greatest source of vitamin C. A half cup of red bell pepper contains 95 mg of vitamin C, providing 25 mg more than a medium orange.
Produce in this part of the spectrum also contain several antioxidants, including ellagic acid, used to protect against cancer and infections from bacteria and viruses. The flavonoid quercetin is also a contributor to the pigment of red hued plants, another potent antioxidant, which serves as an anti-inflammatory and antihistamine. It is recommended for lowering the risk of several cancers and heart disease. Hesperidin is a bioflavonoid which also contributes to healthy circulation and reduced inflammation.
Blue and violet pigment is an indicator of a high concentration of anthocyanins, antioxidants which are credited with slowing the cellular aging process and stop blood from clotting. Some of the most flavorful fruits and vegetables are in this category, such as blueberries, red and blue grapes, beets, eggplant, strawberries, plums, red peppers, and red apples. Red wine is also considered by some to offer these antioxidant qualities.
Additionally, the family of rich purples, red-violets, and blues share a large amount of vitamin C, lutein, and other antioxidants ellagic acid, quercetin, and resveratrol. Grapes and red wine are the most well-known sources of resveratrol, known to reduce LDL cholesterol like other antioxidants, and lower the risk of inflammation.
Carrots are often promoted for their beta carotene content for protection against free radical damage to the skin and repairing DNA. Orange fruits and vegetables are also a strong source of alpha carotene, a cancer-risk reducing nutrient. Mangoes, cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are each bursting with flavor and disease fighting power. Like other fruits and veggies, these can lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, and also contain a significant amount of vitamin C.
The orange, tangerine, clementine, lemon and other citrus fruits are characterized as great sources of vitamin C, though other colors in the spectrum actually provide more. Peaches and nectarines are also included in this group, all of which also contain beta cryptothanxin, a phytonutrient responsible for intracellular communication. It can also help regulate blood flow and thus prevent heart disease. Additional nutrients in this swatch include potassium and beta carotene. The combination of nutrients in orange-yellow produce helps strengthen bones by working with magnesium and calcium.
According to Dr. Heber, the greens can be broken down into two different groups based on their nutrient power. Yellow-greens, such as collard greens, corn, avocado, spinach, and honeydew melon are tinted by the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which keep the eyes healthy. These phytonutrients have been correlated with a lower risk of cataracts by boosting retinal health, as well as age-related macular degeneration. The yellow-green range of hues is therefore helpful in avoiding blindness, high blood pressure, and harmful free radicals.
Some of the most potent edible plants available, greens are packed with natural chemicals that may prevent cancers such as sulforaphance, indoles, and isocyanate. These chemicals reduce carcinogen activity, which can keep cancerous growths at a distance. Green fruits and vegetables also contain plenty of fiber to regulate digestion, chlorophyll, beta carotene, folate and vitamin C. Eating several servings of greens each day improves immune system function, reduces the risk of cancer, and assists in food metabolizing.
Despite their apparent lack of color, whites and light greens indicate the presence of antioxidants such as kaempferol and quercetin. Onions, scallions, and other members of the same group are rich in allicin, a chemical that fights the formation of tumors. Foods in this group include white grapes, asparagus, celery, garlic, onion, pears, and leeks. The immune system also gets a lift from these foods due to beta glucans such as EGCG, SDG, and lignans, also credited with lowering the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers as they regulate hormones.
1. Jane Brody. New York Times. The Color of Nutrition: Fruits and Vegetables.
2. Darrell Miller. Disabled World. Color Wheel of Fruits and Vegetables.
3. WebMD. Ellagic Acid.
4. University of Maryland Medical Center. Quercetin.