By now, we’re all aware of the incredible health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. However, many people don’t realize exactly why these fresh foods are so amazing.
While they boast an array of health benefits – including vitamins, minerals and fiber – fruits and vegetables also contain some special compounds that can help protect us from an ever-growing list of diseases.
One group of such of compounds is the anthocyanins – a type of flavonoid. You may already be familiar with flavonoids – a family of powerful antioxidants – from reading up on the healthful properties of green tea, cocoa and red wine.
But anthocyanins deserve special recognition for their protective properties. So powerful are the anthocyanins that tests have shown they can yield twice the antioxidant power of vitamin C!
Another great benefit of anthocyanins is that they are so easily recognized! Just looking at your plate is enough to tell if your food contains these helpful substances – they provide the bright red-orange to blue-violet color of many fruits and vegetables.
Here are just some of the reasons to add anthocyanin-rich foods to your diet:
1. Boost Cognitive Function
Because anthocyanins are antioxidants, they can fight against oxidative damage – something that is known to contribute to brain aging and memory impairment.
A six year study published in the Annals of Neurology looked at the effects of eating anthocyanin-rich foods (namely strawberries and blueberries) on cognitive function in older women aged 70+. After studying 16,000 patients, the researchers discovered that this antioxidant can delay mental aging by up to two and a half years.
They also found that the higher the intake of anthocyanins and other flavonoids, the slower the rate of cognitive decline.
But these particular antioxidants don’t just slow down the mental aging process, they also boost learning and memory.
In 2009, a study on ovariectomized rats (those with their ovaries removed to mimic post-menopausal symptoms) showed that those treated with anthocyanins displayed improved learning and memory functions, when compared with those that didn’t consume any anthocyanins. In previous research, the same scientists demonstrated that anthocyanins inhibited depression-like symptoms in the same animals.
2. Keep Your Liver Healthy
Our liver is one of our biggest organs, and it plays a vital role in our health. Not only does it convert the nutrients from food into materials that the body can use, it also stores and supplies cells with these materials, regulates hormones and plays a vital role in detoxifying the body.
Be kind to your liver by eating a wide variety of anthocyanin containing foods.
When a 2010 study looked at the effects of anthocyanin-rich extract from black rice on rats with chronic alcohol-induced liver damage, the results were promising.
Rats were divided into two groups and administered alcohol to cause liver damage. However, one group was also given anthocyanin. Those given the antioxidant had lower levels of liver damage induced by the alcohol, pointing to anthocyanin as a possible way to reduce the effects of toxins on the liver.
Wondering if your liver is overburdened and in need of a natural detox? Check out these signs that say it is.
3. Prevent Cancer
Anthocyanins – like most other antioxidants – may help prevent cancer.
Plenty of evidence from various types of laboratory and clinical trials suggest that anthocyanins, and foods abundant in anthocyanins, may have anti-cancer effects:
- Breast Cancer – a 2010 study published in Phytotherapy Research found that, in test-tube experiments, anthocyanins extracted from blueberries helped inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells. A 2014 study has also indicated that black rice anthocyanins have the potential to stop tumor metastasis in breast cancer cells.
- Prostate Cancer – a study on the effects of blueberry proanthocyanidins found that they may help eliminate free radicals and block tumor cells from forming in cases of prostate cancer.
- Colon Cancer – tests show that these compounds can fight colon cancer, although some sources (like purple corn and bilberry) were more effective than others (such as radish and elderberry).
- Oral Cancer – in 2008, a gel based on freeze-dried black raspberries was found to prevent pre-cancerous mouth tumors from becoming malignant.
- Tumor Metastasis – the journal Chemico-Biological Interactions published a study which looked at the ability of black rice anthocyanins to stop tumor metastasis (the spread of cancer to other parts of the body) – a significant source of cancer death. In this particular study, the anthocyanins showed a ‘marked inhibition’ on the spread of certain cancer cells.
4. Reduce High Cholesterol
High blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease, the number one killer in the US. The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your risk for developing heart disease or suffering a heart attack.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study in 2009 which found that supplementing with anthocyanin resulted in a 13.7% increase in HDL cholesterol (the beneficial kind of cholesterol) while reducing LDL levels (the bad kind of cholesterol) by 13.6%.
A more recent study evaluated the ability of black rice (an anthocyanin-rich food) to inhibit cholesterol absorption. Researchers came to the conclusion that black rice did lower cholesterol, at least in part thanks to the antioxidant anthocyanins, and so recommend black rice and similar foods for the prevention and treatment of high cholesterol.
5. Stay Heart Healthy
When berries were studied, it was found that they may reduce the risk of heart disease in women, thanks to their high content of anthocyanins.
A study of 93,600 participants, carried out over 18 years and published in 2013, found that a high anthocyanin intake is associated with a reduced risk of heart attack in young and middle-aged women. Researchers found that the most advantages (a 32% reduction in risk) were gained by those women who ate three or more servings a week.
Other research has found that these antioxidants protect the heart by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, while improving capillary strength.
Another way anthocyanins can contribute to a healthy heart is through the reduction of blood pressure – a significant contributor to cardiovascular disease.
While flavonoids have long been known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, 2011 research showed that the anthocyanins in blueberries may work better than other flavonoids at keeping blood pressure low. Study researchers say that consuming foods containing anthocyanins is ‘a very achievable way of reducing hypertension’ (high blood pressure).
6. Fight Obesity
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reports that mice fed an anthocyanin enriched high-fat diet for eight weeks gained less weight than mice fed a high-fat diet without anthocyanins.
While this may or may not have the same effect in humans, one thing we do know is that anthocyanins are found in fresh fruits and vegetables. By filling your plate with a variety of this healthy produce, you will undoubtedly begin to feel and look better!
7. Improve Vision
These fantastic compounds may even protect your eyesight!
In a French study, researchers tested 36 people for their ability to adapt to light and dark both before and after taking bilberry anthocyanins. For several hours after supplementing, they enjoyed significant improvement in vision. However, the effect wore off within 24 hours.
More recent research found that people taking 50mg of blackcurrant anthocyanins adapted better to the dark and had less eye fatigue than those in the placebo group. Those taking just 20mg did not experience these benefits.
However, other tests show no improvement in night vision or visual acuity when supplementing with these antioxidants.
Looking to improve your eyesight? Here’s what you should be eating.
Top Anthocyanin Containing Foods:
Because it gives a blue, purple or red hue to a variety of fruits, vegetables, cereal grains and flowers, it’s easy to recognize foods that are rich in this important antioxidant. Here are some you should be aiming to eat regularly:
Blueberry, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries, cranberries, bilberries and any other blue, purple or red skinned berries are all rich sources of anthocyanins. In general, berries are fantastic sources of antioxidants with blueberries being ranked number one in terms of antioxidant activity when compared to 40 other fresh fruits and vegetables, in tests carried out at the USDA Human Nutrition Center.
Tart cherries contain higher levels of anthocyanins than sweet cherries. The darker the berry, the higher the concentration. Research has also found that people who eat tart cherries regularly experience pain relief from conditions like gout, osteoarthritis, and even post-workout muscle soreness.
Not only a fantastic source of anthocyanins, purple grapes help dissolve uric acid crystals which can reduce symptoms off gout and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Their skin houses a chemical compound called resveratrol, which exhibits strong anti-inflammatory activities and has been shown in studies to block the free radical activity responsible for cancer and aging.
Because it’s made from grapes, naturally enough red wine contains anthocyanins. Red wine can also lower cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, and may decrease your odds of heart disease and stroke when enjoyed in moderation.
These sweet fruits are a great source of anthocyanins, although content varies between varieties. One particular variety bred by Australian scientists has even been referred to as ‘a medicine’ due to its fat fighting abilities from the fruit’s incredible antioxidant content. Unfortunately, it’s not on the market so, for now, regular plums will have to do!
With quite a high anthocyanin content, make sure to enjoy baked eggplant regularly, or whip up the Middle Eastern favorite – baba ganoush.
Asparagus is delicious and bursting with nutrients. Every now and then, opt for the anthocyanin-rich purple variety which contains more protein and more vitamin C than green asparagus, although slightly less fiber.
Scientists have discovered 36 different types of anthocyanins in red cabbage (although only about 80% of these are absorbable by the body). Unsurprisingly, when volunteers consumed three different amounts of cooked red cabbage, it was found that they absorbed the most anthocyanins when given the largest serving (2 cups) of cooked red cabbage.
Also known as ‘forbidden rice’ as in ancient China only the Emperor was permitted to consume it, black rice is an antioxidant powerhouse. Not only does it have six times more antioxidants than brown or white rice, but one spoonful of black rice bran (equivalent to 10 spoons of cooked black rice) contains the same amount of anthocyanin as a spoonful of fresh blueberries, according to 2010 research.
Other great sources of anthocyanins include:
- Kidney beans
- Black beans
- Red onion
- Sweet potato
Organic is Best When it Comes to Anthocyanins
While it’s well known that organic is a better option in terms of avoiding pesticide residue, these foods are also nutritionally superior, particularly when it comes to antioxidants.
For example, researchers from the USDA’s Genetic Improvement of Fruit and Vegetable Laboratory and Rutgers University discovered that fresh organic blueberries had 50% more anthocyanins and 67% more phenolics (another type of antioxidant) than the conventionally grown berries.
However, if it’s more cost effective to purchase your organic produce frozen then go for it – at least from an anthocyanin standpoint.