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A Splash of Colour


Add a Splash of Colour by Glen Matten MSc

Just like 5-a-day, most of us will have heard the adage to eat a rainbow of colours every day. It’s accepted wisdom that eating produce with bright colours is good for health, and it’s become a buzz-phrase for promoting a varied intake of different fruit and vegetables. Encouraging diversity is certainly a good thing, but is there more to this business of bright colours than a simple reminder to eat a varied diet?

Fruits and vegetables get their bright colours from the natural pigments they produce, and there is a wealth of scientific evidence to show that these plant pigments are linked with a host of health benefits. These fall under the broad category of ‘phytochemicals’ and intriguingly, different plant pigments appear to have effects on different aspects of our health.

For example, lutein and zeaxanthin are yellow pigments from the carotenoid family found abundantly in dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach (the yellow colour in these is actually masked by large amounts of green chlorophyll) as well as foods such as corn and egg yolk. Being the only carotenoids to accumulate in the retina they are thought to safeguard eye health by absorbing potentially harmful blue light and quenching free radicals. As a result, these particular pigments have generated a lot of interest in protecting against age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts.

Another plant pigment of great interest is lycopene, a carotenoid responsible for the lush red of tomatoes, and also watermelon. A high tomato intake, especially in the form of cooked tomatoes, has been linked with a lower risk of prostate cancer. What’s interesting here is that lycopene is tightly bound up in the cells of tomatoes and cooking (or mechanical processing) actually frees it up so it is easier to absorb. This red plant pigment has also attracted the interest of researchers for other diverse health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, and even protecting the skin from the damaging effects of the sun.

Where do we stop? We find another carotenoid, beta-cryptoxanthin, packed into deep yellow/orange vegetables like pumpkin and squash. Higher intakes of this plant pigment are linked to less risk of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as with better bone health, potentially helping to stave off osteoporosis. Then we have anthocyanins, the plant pigments responsible for the vivid purple-red hue of berry fruits (as well as red cabbage, and the skins of red grapes and aubergine). Consumption of berries, rich in anthocyanins, has been linked with a reduction in the risk of diabetes and obesity, improved cardiovascular health, along with benefits for the brain and bones. In fact, why stop at fruits and vegetables, when we find potent plant pigments in spices too? The famous Indian spice Turmeric gets its intense yellow colour from its rich content of curcumin, renowned for its potent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and the subject of intense scientific research.

Stack it all up and colours count. Whilst the idea of eating a rainbow of colours may have become a bit of a health cliché, the benefits are real, and pretty much every part of you, including your eyes, skin, heart, brain, bones and joints will thank you.