Why You Should Eat Red Fruits and Vegetables
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC
You’ve most likely heard many times that you should eat lots of green vegetables. But what about red? Is there anything special about red fruits and vegetables that makes them stand out in the crowd?
Many red fruits and veggies come packed full of antioxidants that can help protect against health problems such as heart disease, prostate cancer, strokes and macular degeneration. We’ve all heard of antioxidants and that they’re a good thing. They work to destroy free radicals in our body. Free radicals are byproducts of the process of turning food into energy. Too many free radicals over a long period of time can cause damage to cells and result in oxidative stress. This stress can then lead to chronic diseases.
Lycopene and anthocyanins are phytochemicals that plants produce that help them stay healthy, but also provide health benefits for us. Lycopene is the pigment that gives red and pink fruits, such as tomatoes, watermelons, papaya, guava and pink grapefruit, their color. It has been linked to benefits such as heart health, protection against sunburns, macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in those who are 60 years old and above) and some types of cancers.
Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments responsible for the red, purple, and blue color in fruits and vegetables. Berries, currants, grapes, and some tropical fruits have high anthocyanins content. Red to purplish blue-colored leafy vegetables, grains, roots, and tubers also contain a high level of anthocyanins. These colored pigments have antioxidative and antimicrobial properties, and can improve visual and neurological health. The amount of anthocyanins in foods can vary greatly. For example, Red Delicious apples provide more anthocyanins than Fuji apples; black raspberries are a far richer source than red raspberries; and Concord grapes are a much more concentrated source than red grapes.
Interest in these phytochemicals has been increasing in recent years because of the possibility of their impact on health. Medical researchers and the food industry are interested because they can be used as natural alternatives to synthetic dyes. They are also interested in the possibilities of enhancing foods so they have health benefits beyond just meeting your daily nutritional needs.
Health Benefits of Lycopene
Lycopene can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving the elasticity of blood vessels. It also reduces the plaque in blood vessels that can contribute to heart attacks, decreases inflammation, and reduces blood pressure.
Epidemiologic studies suggest that people who consume more foods high in lycopene have decreased risk of some types of cancer, especially lung, stomach, prostate, and breast cancer. Although research results can be inconsistent, overall it appears that regularly consuming more red-colored vegetables and fruits has an important beneficial impact on health.
Health Benefits of Anthocyanins
Plant anthocyanins have been widely studied for their medicinal values. Anthocyanins have been reported in studies as having the ability to lower blood pressure, improve visual acuity, reduce cancer cell proliferation, inhibit tumor formation, reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cognitive decline, and prevent diabetes. They are also reported to have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial activity.
Laboratory studies that used a variety of cancer cells showed that anthocyanins not only act as antioxidants, they also activate detoxifying enzymes; prevent cancer cell proliferation; induce cancer cell death; have anti-inflammatory effects; they inhibit the formation of new blood vessels that encourage tumor growth; prevent cancer cell invasion; and induce differentiation (the more differentiated the cancer cell, the less likely it is to grow and spread).11
Tips to Improve Lycopene Absorption
Several factors influence the absorption and bioavailability* of lycopene. This includes the season during which the fruits or vegetables were harvested, the processing, and the type of fruit or vegetable.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 85% of the lycopene in our diets comes from tomatoes and tomato products. Use these tips to improve your absorption of lycopene and gain more of the health benefits:
Heating tomatoes releases lycopene from the fibrous cell structure. Therefore, processing tomato products such as tomato juice, paste, puree, ketchup, sauce, or soup improves the bioavailability of lycopene.
Consume foods containing lycopene with a source of fat that contains monounsaturated fatty acids to improve lycopene absorption. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, avocados, peanut butter, almond butter, almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and pistachios.
Diets high in fiber may reduce the amount of lycopene absorbed. This doesn’t mean that we should reduce our fiber intake. Fiber helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and improves gastrointestinal health. Instead, it’s important to include more red-colored fruits and vegetables in your daily food choices to increase the amount of lycopene consumed.
For improved lycopene absorption, enjoy pasta with homemade tomato-based pasta sauce prepared with olive oil, or combine red grapefruit segments with avocado in a salad, drink tomato juice for breakfast with scrambled eggs cooked in canola oil, or choose watermelon for dessert in a meal that contains fat from nuts, seeds, or olive oil.
Here are some recipe ideas to get started on eating more red fruits and vegetables:
* Cranberries have lots of anthocyanins and can be turned into homemade cranberry sauce, cranberry gravy, cranberry salad and cranberry guacamole.
* Pomegranate is high in antioxidants that have been linked to helping prevent cancer and heart disease. Enjoy this fruit in smoothies, pomegranate and apple crisp, or a pomegranate and pear green salad with ginger.
* Cherries are high in the antioxidants vitamins C and A and anthocyanin. If they’re not in season, buy them frozen or dried. They come in varieties such as dark, Bing, and Morello. Recipe ideas include frozen cherry and greek yogurt smoothies, oatmeal cherry crumble, cherry sauce and cherry-apple tarts.
* Tomatoes are known for being high in lycopene. Recipes include garlic roasted cherry tomatoes, zucchini-tomato and herb bake, and garden tomato soup.
* Raspberry recipes include triple berry smoothies, oatmeal raspberry bars, fresh raspberry sauce, and as a topping on cereal and salads.
* Watermelon can be made into a salsa, sorbet, ginger-lime melon salad, or eaten in wedges with some lime and mint.
This information is for educational purposes only. The statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult your physician if you have any question regarding a medical condition
You may also like:
Mozos I, Stoian D, Caraba A, Malainer C, Horba?czuk JO, Atanasov AG. Lycopene and Vascular Health. Front Pharmacol. 2018;9:521. Published 2018 May 23. doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00521
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Lycopene. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/lycopene Last updated 12-12-17; accessed 11-26-18
American Institute for Cancer Research. Heat, Shape and Type: Increasing Lycopene Absorption. http://www.aicr.org/cancer-research-update/2015/10_14/cru_Heat-Shape-and-Type-Increasing-Lycopene-
Absorption.html published October 14, 2015. Accessed 11-26-18