Pick a Colour
Autumn marks a time when nature bursts into an ombré of many colours. The phrase “eat the rainbow” has been heralded in nutritional advice for many years now, but what gives fruit and veg their colours? To welcome the new season and the change in leaves, weather and veggies, we’re taking an in-depth look at what properties give our crops their many varied hues and shades.
We all know fruit and veg are vitamin powerhouses, but the phytonutrients that lay within their flesh may not be household names. A phytonutrient is a general name for the compounds and natural chemicals produced by plants. Just as the human body creates enzymes and compounds, plant bodies do the same for their survival. It is believed that plants evolved these nutrients to protect against insects and fungi, and damage from the sun’s UV rays. Phyto- derives from the Greek word for plant. By consuming the plant, we consume the nutrients it creates to protect itself, which in turn breakdowns to support and nourish us. In general, the deeper the colour of a fruit or vegetable, the more concentrated the nutrients are within.
Here is a dive into the phytonutrients that create the veggie spectrum of greens, reds, yellows/oranges, purples, and whites/brown.
Greens – Dust off that biology book and turn back to the lesson on photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is the essential pigment in all plants that allows them to absorb light and carry out photosynthesis. It is also the culprit behind the classic green hue. Chlorophyll is known to absorb light in the red and blue parts of the light spectrum and reflect the remaining light, which is mostly green. Thus these veggies appear green. Green fruit and veg also contains lutein another pigment closely aligned with yellow. Together, green veg can impart the phytonutrients isothiocyanate, isoflavone, vitamin K, and folate. These nutrients may boost blood and bone health. As the largest colour group, there are so many choices to get your fill, from all sorts of dark leafy greens, to courgettes, and broccoli. Broccoli leaves are edible and they contain more concentrated nutrients than the florets alone.
Reds – The next most common plant colour, and phytonutrient that is responsible for the luscious tomato or juicy watermelon is lycopene. It is regularly coupled with anthocyanins, another compound responsible for red pigments and is found only in plants. There is a variety of information that suggests red plants can be beneficial for our skin and packed with antioxidants that combat disease. Reach for a scarlet pepper, crimson tomato, ruby red beetroot or autumnal apple with the skin on to reap their benefits.
Yellows/Oranges – Carotenoids and lutein join forces to create vibrant sunny-coloured fruit and veg. These shades are the highest in vitamin C and vitamin A, and help eye health as they contain zeaxanthin, a vitamin essential for eye development. Beta-carotene is the famous pigment this group, which your body converts to vitamin A and retinol, both key for cell growth and vision. Yellow and orange citrus fruits have an added phytonutrient called hesperidin, that may have an effect on increased blood flow. The poster child for these pigments is the carrot. Many squashes and pumpkins are bursting with them as well. Additionally, before you cook up a green pepper, we have some news you may want to sit down to hear. Green, yellow, orange and red peppers are all the same pepper at different stages of growth! Green is the unripened fruit, yellow and orange are in the middle stages, and red is fully ripened. Catch your peppers in their between phase to up your carotenoid intake.
Purples - Anthocyanins once again appear in fruit and veg with a violet pigment. Paired with the natural chemical resveratrol, it gives that deep indigo, almost black, inky stain to many berries and plums. This colour family is reported to promote anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing properties in our bodies. Aubergine with the skin on is an excellent source, as is red cabbage. Grape skin is a primary source of resveratrol, so you might as well pour yourself a glass of red wine too. Most fascinating to learn is that foods we may perceive as blue, such as the blueberry, are actually on the purple spectrum. There is a dearth of naturally occurring blue foods, and science has many theories as to why this may be. Here are two ideas:
Whites/Browns – What might look like a lack of colour on the outside hides a bounty of nutrients on the inside. Anthoxanthins are the phytonutrients that lend a white, creamy or even colourless shade. Along with it are sulforaphane, allicin and quercetin, compounds shown to be good for your heart and bones. The autumn and winter are chock full of cauliflowers, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, parsnips, and turnips – all considerable sources of these phytonutrients.
We can all benefit from a diet full of variety, vitamins and minerals. Going under the skin and leaf of your fruit and veg to understand what makes them so colourful and nutritious, allows us to appreciate why “eating the rainbow” is so good for our health. As the autumn leaves begin to transform and shine with colour, we hope your plates will continue to as well.
Learn more and handy guides to eating colourful fruit and veg: