Red Fruits and Vegetables are loaded with a variety of phytonutrients, including anthocyanins, lycopene and resveratrol. (1,2,3)
Phytonutrients (also known as phytochemicals) are naturally-occurring chemicals that are only present in plants and plant-based foods. “Phyto” means plant in Greek. These chemical compounds contribute to the distinctive colors, odors and flavors of plants — such as the bright red hue of a strawberry, the astringent flavor of a cranberry or the pungent odor of an onion. Plants produce phytochemicals to protect themselves, and research shows that they are also extremely beneficial to humans as well. Eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, rich in phytonutrients, can reduce your risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. (2,3)
The many faces of phytonutrients
Approximately 10,000 different phytochemicals have been identified thus far, and the number keeps growing. (3) Phytochemicals are classified into groups based on their chemical structure.
Anthocyanins (also called anthocyanidins) belong to a group of phytochemicals called flavonoids. Flavonoids are the currently the largest group of phytochemicals, with over 6,000 types! (3) Anthocyanins have been shown to reduce disease risk by supporting blood vessel health, preserving brain function and preventing cell damage with strong antioxidant activity. Anthocyanins are abundant in many red foods, including: cherries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, red and purple grapes (and red wine), red onions, red potatoes, red radishes and red/purple cabbage. (2,5,6)
Lycopene belongs to the carotenoid group of phytochemicals. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant, which helps your body fight free radicals and the damage they can cause. Lycopene may also have anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits and and may help protect against heart attacks. Tomato-based products are the best sources of lycopene. While raw sources of lycopene — such as raw tomatoes, red bell peppers and watermelon — are good, cooked sources are even better. Cooking actually enhances the bioavailability of lycopene so that your body absorbs it better. Carotenoids are also fat-soluble, so fat helps with absorption too. Therefore, cooked tomato products with a little olive oil or other healthy fat are the best sources of lycopene. Check out the TB articles on Lycopene and Carotenoids for more information and recipe links.
Resveratrol belongs to a group of phytochemicals called polyphenols. Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant and also has strong anti-inflammatory properties. In studies, resveratrol has been shown to help with cancer prevention against many different types of cancer. Resveratrol has also been linked with improved cardiac health and lung health. (5,7)
Making your grocery list? Be sure to include some of these Radical Red Foods:
- Red Apples – Apples are a great source of fiber, vitamin C and phytochemicals. They contain the flavonoids quercetin, epicatechin and anthocyanins. This blend of fiber and nutrients give apples the power to help with weight management, heart health, brain function, lung health and cancer protection. Slice them up and enjoy with some peanut butter for a healthy snack or bake them with cinnamon for a warm dessert! For more information, check out the TB article on Red Apples.
- Red Berries – Strawberries, raspberries and cranberries are all high in anthocyanins. They are high in many other antioxidants as well, including: catechins, ellagic acid, gallic acid, quercetin, rutin and vitamin C — making them some of the best disease-fighting foods that you can find! Not in season? Keep some in the freezer to toss in smoothies year-round. For more information, check out the TB article on Berries.
- Cherries – This delicious fruit is a good source of fiber, vitamin C and potassium. Cherries contain a variety of phytochemicals, including anthocyanins, hydroxycinnamic acid and perillyl alcohol. According to the AICR, “Some studies show that compounds in cherries may help relieve pain from arthritis, gout and headaches.” (8) Set out a bowl of cherries instead of chips when you feel like snacking. Sprinkle dried cherries in your yogurt or oatmeal or on a salad.
- Red Grapes – There are over 1,600 phytonutrients in grapes alone! (9) The skin of the grape contains the most resveratrol, with red and purple grapes being much higher in resveratrol than green grapes. (8) Red wine contains resveratrol, but moderation is recommended! Grapes are another great low-calorie, high water snack option. My kids love to snack on a bowl of frozen grapes. I like to take them on long hikes to help me stay hydrated.
- Tomatoes – In addition to lycopene, tomatoes are also an excellent source of vitamins A and C and potassium. They are also high in water and low in calories, which is great for weight loss and hydration! Add them to salads and sandwiches or enjoy low sodium tomato sauces and soups for the most lycopene!
- Red Bell Peppers – These are also a delicious source of antioxidant vitamins A and C and lycopene. They are also high in potassium and soluble fiber and low in calories – making them another great choice for disease protection, weight management and heart health! Sauté them in olive oil for extra lycopene absorption. They are great in fajitas and stir fries.
- Red color group: phytochemical info center. Produce For Better Health Foundation. Accessed January 24, 2017.
- Webb, D. Phytochemicals’ role in good health. Today’s Dietitian. 2013;15(2):70.
- Thiede A and Zidenberg-Cherr S. Nutrition and health info sheet: Phytochemicals. Center for Nutrition in Schools. Department of Nutrition University of California, Davis. June 2016.
- Glossary: Phytochemical info center. Produce for Better Health Foundation. Accessed January 24, 2017.
- What are phytonutrients? Fruit & Veggies More Matters. Accessed January 24, 2017.
- Webb, D. Anthocyanins. Today’s Dietitian. 2014; 16(3): 20.
- AICR’s foods that fight cancer: Grapes and grape juice. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed January 24, 2017.
- AICR’s foods that fight cancer: Cherries. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed January 24, 2017.
- About the buzz: Concord grapes for heart health? Fruit & Veggies More Matters. Accessed January 24, 2017.