Phytochemicals

A popular phrase, “Eat the rainbow” is about increasing the color and variety of fruits and vegetables on your plate. Increasing the range of fruits and vegetables you eat can help you live a longer and healthier life. This is because fruits and vegetables contain things called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Phytonutrients give plant foods their vibrant colors and are used as protection from environmental dangers such as excessive sun or disease.

When we eat phytonutrients, we are decreasing our risk for cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Phytonutrients contain antioxidant properties which help our cells avoid damage in the body. There are a large number of different phytonutrients and they can be classified by the color of the fruit or vegetable. 

Red: Fruits and vegetables that fall under the red category contain lycopene. Lycopene has been linked with improving heart health and protecting against prostate and lung cancer. Foods that contain lycopene include tomatoes, watermelon, red grapes, red peppers, beets, and apples.

Blue/Purple: Contain anthocyanins which are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules that stop or slow damage to the cells in our bodies. Specifically, antioxidants protect against damage from free radicals – which are molecules created during normal metabolism – and are believed to have a role in cancer, stroke, and aging. Anthocyanins via their antioxidant effects are beneficial for healthy aging by helping to regulate sugar in our bodies. Foods to include are blueberries, eggplant, blackberries, plums, prunes, and purple cabbage.

Green: Foods under this category contain sulforaphane, indoles, and isocyanate which are compounds that are anticarcinogenic. Anticarcinogenic means a substance that has the ability to prevent the development of cancer. Green vegetables also contain lutein which is important for eye health! Foods to choose from this category are broccoli, spinach, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, kiwi, and asparagus.

Orange/Yellow: Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene and cryptoxanthin. Beta-Carotene is one of these carotenoids and is beneficial for immune system health, vision, skin and bone. Another carotenoid is cryptoxanthin, cryptoxanthin helps with communication between cells. Cryptoxanthin has been linked to decreasing the risk of heart disease. Some foods that fall under this category includes: Winter squash, cantaloupe, apricots, yellow peppers, oranges, mango, pumpkin, peaches, and corn.

White/Brown: Fruits and vegetables in this category contain allicin, quercetin and kaempferol. Allicin contains antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties it is also linked with anticancer activity. Quercetin and kaempferol, like allicin have been shown to kill cancer cells and reduce inflammation. Sources of these include onions, cauliflower, garlic, leeks, mushrooms, parsnips, and leeks.

Tips:

  • Eat the rainbow!
  • Limit starchy vegetables – although potatoes fall under the white/brown category, try to eat these in moderation.
  • Try for 2 Fruit and 3 Vegetables – Goal is to get 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day!
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables work too! Frozen fruits and vegetables will still have all these wonderful nutritious benefits.

Written by: Veronica Arellano, Dietetic Intern Cox College.