Eat Your Colors

Pick bright produce for the picture of health.

| May/June 2005

Across the ancient continents, throughout the eons, the plant species that managed to get their seeds to favorable soil have been the ones to survive. Vividly colored fruits and vegetables served this function well, providing nourishment for the animals and humans attracted by rich hues and ripening aromas. The seeds within these plants often remained undigested, passing intact through the digestive tract and finding a fertile home some distance from the parent plant, where competition for nutrients might have been less intense.

Humans are attracted to plant pigments at the deepest level. Biology compelled our earliest ancestors to seek out the rich variety of nutrients, energy-rich sugars and pharmacologically active compounds in colorful fruits and vegetables. An intersection of evolutionary paths crisscrossed this ancient past: Well-nourished animals with a keen eye for energy-rich, nourishing foods were more likely to reproduce successfully. Likewise, plants with successful, efficient means of seed dispersal achieved the same, all-important end: passage of genetic material into successive generations.

From these ancient beginnings, human societies have maintained their deep associations with Kingdom Plantae. Artistic expression, religious devotions, seasonal celebrations — many of our human endeavors have included and even exalted the rich variety of glistening color in nature’s edible harvest. Today, scientific research is formalizing what wise people have known for millennia: Botanical pigments hold a complex blend of attractions for human beings. Indeed, vivid coloration suggests more than deliciously ripe fruit: Deeply pigmented varieties often possess medicinal actions that help our body systems work well and avoid disease.

A Cornucopia of Carotenes

Today, a wealth of new research is revealing the health benefits of the colorful and abundant carotenoids, a diverse group of fat-soluble pigments found in nutritional superstars like broccoli, spinach, carrots and tomatoes. Along with fiber, valuable trace minerals and essential vitamins, carotenoid-rich produce offers an array of protective benefits. An abundance of newly published data suggests that carotenoids confer cardiac and prostate protection, maintenance of eye health, potent antioxidant support and even potential anticancer effects — even more reasons to ensure that your daily ration (many practitioners are now suggesting at least nine servings daily) of fresh fruits and veggies includes a variety of deeply colored selections.

A family of orange-red pigments most commonly associated with carrots (hence, the name), carotenoids and other plant pigments act much like the color filters used in photography — absorbing certain wavelengths of light energy and reflecting others. This selective filtering mechanism allows carotenoid pigments to absorb and trap visible light energy at the shorter wavelengths of the blue and green portions of the spectrum. The longer wavelengths of red, orange and yellow light are reflected, producing the brilliant hues of the carotene-rich plants — tomatoes, carrots, peppers and squashes. (In green vegetables, the red-yellow of carotene is often masked by the green of chlorophyll. Typically, the more deeply colored green and yellow the fruits and vegetables are, the more carotene they contain.) This capacity to absorb light energy has important implications in inhibiting free radicals and protecting us from sun-induced aging and skin damage.

In a study published in the September 2004 issue of Free Radical Biology and Medicine, researchers reported that beta-carotene confers protection against MMPs — chemical mediators involved in skin damage and aging due to sun exposure. Antioxidant activity is key to this protection, as beta-carotene neutralizes the harmful effects of unpaired electrons, commonly referred to as free radicals, a reference to their highly reactive and destructive nature. By donating electrons as needed, beta-carotene neutralizes the reactive properties of free radicals and offers some protection against sun-related skin damage.

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