Edible Colors for Health

Edible colors are natural pigments that are found in the genetic make-up of plants. These chemical compounds give color to the food we eat.

| Winter 2015-16

  • For the healthiest diet, eat a rainbow of colors every day. A high-fat and highly processed “beige diet” is nutrient impaired.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Each color represents a different spectrum of healthy constituents.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Heirloom varieties can provide not only an abundance of colors and patterns not found in the grocery store, but also unique flavors that these colors provide.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Centuries of breeding have drawn on genetic diversity hidden in the wild carrot to produce a cultivated carrot of many shapes and sizes. Traits that evolved during its domestication include a large taproot and increased accumulation of carotenoid pigments.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

Edible colors are natural pigments found in tissue of plants. These are the chemical compounds produced by several biochemical pathways and give colors to the food. These colors change according to the growth stage of the plant parts, and vegetables are comprised of pigments, anthocyanins, betalains, carotenoids, and chlorophyll. These pigments play important ecological and metabolic functions in the plants and are more frequently exploited as the source of nutraceuticals to address a number of human ailments. These pigments have been implicated in regimes to maintain human health, to protect against chronic disease(s), or to restore wellness by repairing tissues after disease has been established. A wide range of bioassays and tests have been forwarded to establish the biological efficacy of natural pigments in human health intervention. Different color fruits and vegetables contain unique components that are essential to our health. Therefore, by eating fruits and vegetables of a variety of colors, one can get the best all-around health benefits.


Anthocyanins are natural pigments belonging to the flavonoid family. They are responsible for the blue, purple, red and orange colors of many fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanins are capable of acting on different cells involved in the development of atherosclerosis, one of the leading causes of cardiovascular dysfunction. Anthocyanins and the aglycone cyanidin were found to inhibit cyclooxygenase enzymes, which can be one marker for the initiation stage of carcinogenesis. Recently, both the anthocyanins and cyanidin aglycone from tart cherries reduced cell growth of human colon cancer cell lines. On one hand they can interfere with glucose absorption, and on the other hand they may have a protective effect on pancreatic cells. The most extensively documented phytomedicinal role of anthocyanin pigments is in improving eyesight, including night vision. Anthocyanins exert significant antimicrobial properties, and (in association with other flavonoids) have demonstrated quite effective inhibition of aflatoxin biosynthesis.


Betalains have been widely used as natural colorants for many centuries, but their attractiveness for use as colorants of foods (or drugs and cosmetics) has increased recently due to their reportedly high anti-oxidative, free radical scavenging activities and concerns about the use of various synthetic alternatives, e.g. beet root.




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