Plants have many ways of sending messages to us humans, if we pay attention. Thorns, scents and colors are some of the ways that plants send clues about their compatibility or usefulness. For vegetables and fruits, many of us are missing the biggest clue of all – color. The vibrant orange of a carrot, the pearly white of cauliflower and the deep purple of an eggplant are actually color codes about what a plant can do for the health of our bodies.
Colors of fruits and vegetables indicate what types of phytonutrients they contain. Phytonutrients are natural chemicals contained within certain plants that are believed be beneficial to human health and help to prevent various diseases. These chemicals help protect the plant from invaders like hungry insects, disease and fungus. Serendipitously, these phytonutrients can also help protect humans as well. You may recognize the names of some phytonutrients, such as polyphenols, resveratrol, flavinoids, carotenoids, w-3 fatty acids, and probiotics, to name a few. Many phytonutrients are antioxidant in nature. That is, they remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents in a living organism. Oxidizing agents react with other molecules to obtain their missing electron. The deleterious actions of oxidants include damage to DNA, proteins, and lipids, promoting the development of malignant cells. Polyphenols and carotenoids are the two main kinds of antioxidant phytochemicals.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has several articles referenced below if you want to dig deeper. NIH includes a reference chart that really simplifies the incredible disease reducing benefits of certain fruits and vegetables made available by their scientific research on the matter. Refer to www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7770496/ for updates and changes to the chart, too.
Here are some examples: In red vegetables and fruits like cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, strawberries, red bell peppers, tomatoes, and red potatoes, one can find carotenoids, flavones, Lycopene and Quercetin (among other phytonutrients). Health benefits include anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant activity and immunity support. For the color orange, apricots, cantaloupe, oranges, orange bell peppers, sweet potatoes and turmeric are just some of what is on the list. Phytonutrients include beta-carotene, bioflavonoids and curcuminoids, among others. The direct benefits of orange produce equate to support for the endocrine system, ovulation and fertility. Antioxidants for fat soluble tissues are also present.
The color white was missing from the chart, but the Harvard Review lists white and brown as a category. Vegetables that fall under this color are onions, cauliflower, garlic, leeks, parsnips, daikon radish, and mushrooms. Phytonutrients found in this color include antioxidant flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol. The onion family contains allicin, which has anti-tumor properties. Check out the link – it is jaw dropping information.
When I reviewed this chart and really digested it, I thought to myself, could it really be this simple? In essence, Mother Nature has literally color coded our fruits and vegetables for us. And while it is best to eat a rainbow of colors, if you have a specific chronic disease, you might want to double up on a certain color. If you will notice when it comes to some vegetables, for example peppers, a bell pepper can contain different phytochemicals based on its color. So, a vegetable or fruits’ phytonutrient content is contingent upon its color, not its family.
Lack of good nutrition has long been the cause of many diseases. Long ago, sailors often suffered from scurvy, which is caused by a lack of Vitamin C. Captains started giving their crews lemon juice on long voyages and the scurvy abated. Pellagra is caused by a lack of vitamin B3, otherwise known as niacin. This is mostly remedied in modern times by fortified breads and cereals, but niacin is also found in poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, and avocados. A lack of vitamin A can cause blindness, and vitamin A is in the beta carotene of fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and dark green leafy vegetables.
Phytonutrients are more complex compounds found in vegetables that, just like vitamins, protect us from disease. According to the CDC, the top two causes of death in the U.S. pre-COVID (2019) were non communicable diseases. Heart disease and cancer topped the list respectively. Yet, so many antioxidant phytochemicals can target and protect us from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Beyond vitamins, vegetables and fruits have additional magical powers that are grossly undervalued by the general U.S. population. We very much need to remove the “ick” factor that has devastated vegetable consumption because as it turns out vegetables may be one of the coolest things ever.
Despite the well-known fact that vegetables and fruits are good for us, only one in 10 adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables (CDC, 2017).We, as a collective population, are underutilizing one of the greatest assets for our health and it has been color coded for all to see. So, what can we do about it? Simply, we can do better, and we must. Real long-term change is hard, but it is necessary if the general population is to improve its overall health. Jumping from a few servings of vegetables a day to nine may seem like an overwhelming leap. One way to implement change is to do it in small increments over time. As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I suggest starting with an obtainable goal, like adding one more serving each day for a week and then build on that.
Here are some great ways to add more vegetables and fruits to your diet:
Try a veggie omelet or add veggies to your breakfast burrito. Avocado toast and home fries with onions, anyone? Start your day with a piece of fruit. Stir some fresh or dried fruit into your oatmeal. Add fresh banana slices or berries into your yogurt.
Jazz your salad up with new vegetable combinations. You can always add tomato or avocado to your sandwich but, better yet, what about a vegetable sandwich? If you order pizza, get extra vegetable toppings. Make a wrap out of lettuce and shove some shredded carrots in there. Vegetable soup or soup with vegetables makes an awesome lunch.
Add a vegetable to your mac and cheese, like broccoli, peas or butternut squash. Instead of the classic meat, starch, veg combo, try a meat, veg, veg or starch, veg, veg combo. Stir fry is a great way to get multiple servings of vegetables – just make the stir fry mostly vegetables.
Snacks and desserts
Snacks and desserts are made for fruits. Fruit salad, fruit cobbler, fruit pie, fruit smoothies. The simplicity of an apple or orange can be liberating and there is nothing easier. For savory snacks, try veggies and hummus dip or olives and pickles.
Not crazy about the taste of vegetables? Your tastebuds may’ve been hijacked by processed foods that are highly sugary or salty. It’s time to tone it down a notch. Seasoning vegetables with herbs and spices may be one way to please your palate. Broccoli with cheese is better than no broccoli.
Another way to change eating habits is to change up your routine. Maybe, instead of visiting the morning coffee shop drive thru you could spend that time packing a colorful lunch or snacks for the day. Try immersing yourself in produce culture by visiting a farmers’ market where you are surrounded by color or stop by a roadside stand. Go pick a pumpkin, try fresh apple cider, subscribe to a cooking magazine.
One thing is for certain, if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten, and I’m not satisfied with that.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Sources and Recommended Readings
Can the ad industry persuade us to eat more vegetables?
Phytonutrients: Paint your plate with the colors of the rainbow.
Why you should eat the rainbow when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruit or vegetables.
A Review of the Science of Colorful, Plant-Based Food and Practical Strategies for “Eating the Rainbow”
Phytonutrients as therapeutic agents.
Antioxidant Phytochemicals for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases.
Leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2019.
What are Phytonutrients?
“Fight Inflammation with Helpful Heirlooms” by Shawna Coronado. Heirloom Gardener, Fall 2019.