Have you ever heard that you should eat a rainbow of produce? This isn’t just because it looks pretty, a variety of colors is crucial for a healthy diet. Eating the whole color spectrum ensures that you are getting a range of nutrients and health benefits.
First things first, let’s talk about why veggies and fruits are so colorful. Most of the pigment you see is from phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are naturally occurring compounds present in all plants. They serve as a natural defense system to protect the fruits and veggies they live in. Some of this protection transfers to our bodies when we include these foods in our diets. Phytonutrients possess tons of health benefits, which make them pretty magical. Most important to our health are their antioxidant, detoxification and anti-inflammatory properties.
Why don’t we know more about phytonutrients? While you may have read about them, it’s unlikely that you see them often on food labels. This is because they aren’t yet classified as essential, as opposed to fat and protein which our body needs to function properly every day. While phytonutrients don’t present the same short-term urgency, their myriad health benefits offer long-term insurance for chronic disease prevention.
There are lots of other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and fiber, that work together to make these foods useful to us. Here we’ll focus on the phytonutrients to learn more about these nutritional superheroes. We’ll go through the rainbow, learning about the unique properties of the phytonutrients in each color family.
Summer is the perfect time to start practice eating your rainbow. There are tons of local produce options that are extra delicious and nutritious because they haven’t traveled far to you. Don’t worry about trying to pronounce all the names, just enjoy the health benefits and deliciousness all summer (and year) long.
Red produce has a beautiful hue thanks mostly to its high content of lycopene, which is in the carotenoid family of phytonutrients. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants protect the body by preventing or delaying the free radical damage that causes harm to our cells. The antioxidants in lycopene are particularly beneficial to the cardiovascular system due to their association with decreased blood cholesterol and blood clotting.
Studies have also shown that lycopene is associated with decreased risk of prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men in the United States.
Enjoy lycopene rich produce in mid to late summer with tomatoes, bell peppers and watermelon, which are all in season in Minnesota from July to September. The lycopene in cooked tomatoes is more potent than raw, so be sure to include tomato sauce regularly in your diet.
Orange and yellow pigmented produce is a group you definitely don’t want to ignore. Its sunny color and disposition can be attributed to the carotenoids beta-carotene and alpha-carotene. These compounds are antioxidants that our bodies convert to vitamin A. Beta-carotene is famous for its protective effects on eye health. It will also make your heart happy, as it is associated with a decreased risk of stroke and heart disease.
As a bonus, this color group tends to be rich in vitamin C, which we all know and love for its immune protective properties. Eating more yellow and orange is a perfect way to avoid the dreaded summer cold!
Load up on this group at your local farmers market. Try carrots, orange/yellow bell peppers and sweet potatoes starting in July. Then add pumpkin and winter squash beginning in September.
Green veggies probably don’t need extra advertising for their health benefits, but you may not know why they’re so good for you. This group is rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which are carotenoids that play an important role in eye health. Research has demonstrated an association between lutein/zeaxanthin intake and reduced risk of macular degeneration. Since this disease is the leading cause of vision loss in our country, we have another important reason to eat our greens.
The green veggies that are part of the cruciferous family (cabbage, kale, collard greens, etc.) are also rich in glucosinolates. Research has shown strong evidence that glucosinolates have anti-cancer properties.
Get your green and cruciferous fix this season with local broccoli, spinach, kale and green bell peppers.
Purple-red produce is rich in anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid responsible for the beautiful, dark hue. These phytonutrient superstars have powerful antioxidant properties. There have also been several studies that show an association between anthocyanin intake and decreased risk of cancer. Anthocyanins appear to inhibit cancer cell growth and tumor formation.
You have tons of chances to get your purple-red fix this summer with delicious produce like strawberries, blueberries and eggplants. Make sure to buy extra berries and freeze them so you can enjoy their benefits all year long.
White produce counts too! While they might not be as colorful as some, white veggies are certainly powerful health partners. Garlic and onions are in the allium family which is known for its sulfur-containing compounds and polyphenols. This combination of nutrients offers natural antibacterial and antioxidant properties which help ward off disease.
Cauliflower is part of the cruciferous family, like broccoli, and has the same cancer-fighting properties.
Buy Minnesota-grown garlic, onions and cauliflower at market starting in late July.
Summer Rainbow Rice Salad
This colorful salad is loaded with phytonutrients from each color family. It’s perfect for a picnic and can be made the day before. Add or substitute any of your favorite veggies for the ones listed here.
2 cups brown rice, cooked
1 cup fresh corn kernels
½ cup white onion, diced
½ cup tomato, diced
½ cup orange pepper, diced
½ cup raw beets, shredded
½ cup fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 limes, juiced
salt and black or cayenne pepper to taste
Combine all salad ingredients in large bowl. Stir together dressing ingredients and pour over salad. Mix well. Chill for at least two hours or up to overnight before serving. Serves 4-6.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree in nutrition and public health from the University of North Carolina. She is also a registered dietitian. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at email@example.com.