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Phytochemicals: Colors to Fight Cancer

Including a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet is an important way of making sure you stay healthy! But did you know that there are chemical compounds behind the colors that makes fruits and vegetables so vibrant? Interestingly, each of the different chemicals have various benefits in our system which contributes to the overall health benefit of a diet high in fruits and vegetables. So it is important to, as we say at Savor Health, “eat the rainbow.” Include variety of colors, and therefore different cancer fighting compounds in your diet.

Some of these compounds may sound familiar as well. Lycopene and carotenoids are two of the most well known compounds, known as phytochemicals, that are the reason tomatoes are red and carrots are orange. But these are not the only ones out there. Each color vegetable has a different phytochemical that helps boost our health in one way or another.



Anthocyanins are the phytochemicals that create the blue and purple hues that you find in fruits such as blueberries and vegetables like eggplant. The darker the fruit or vegetable, the more concentrated the phytochemicals. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that are particularly heart healthy and may help support healthy blood pressure.

Additional foods that contain the blue/purple anthocyanins include:

  • Blackberries
  • Prunes
  • Plums
  • Pomegranates



The green color found in many fruits and vegetables is attributed to the chlorophyll molecule which allows plants to capture energy from the sun. According to the Produce for a Better Health Foundation, cruciferous veggies (ie: broccoli and cabbage) contain both indoles and isothiocyanates, which may possess cancer fighting properties. Additionally, many dark green vegetables contain the phytochemical lutein, which reduces the amount of free radical damage in the eye and contributes to the reduction of macular degeneration, as well as a reduction in heart disease and cancer risk.

Additional foods that contain the green indoles, isothiocyantes, and lutein include:

  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Bok Choy
  • Lettuces
  • Artichokes



The majority of the red pigment in fruits in vegetables like strawberries and red bell peppers is due to a high content of lycopene, as well as some anthocyanins found in blue/purple produce. A member of the carotenoid family, lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that has been associated with a reduced risk of some cancers, especially prostate cancer, and protection against heart attacks. Interestingly, unlike some nutrients whose content is diminished with cooking, the availability of lycopene actually increases with cooking. Tomato-based products like pasta sauce and tomato paste are the most concentrated source of this phytochemical.

Red fruits and vegetables are also sources of flavonoids, which reduce inflammation and have antioxidant properties.

Examples of other foods that contain lycopene and anthocyanins include:

  • Cranberries
  • Raspberries
  • Red Onions
  • Red Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Red Radishes
  • Watermelon
  • Pink Grapefruit



The yellow/orange color in vegetables such at sweet potatoes or cantaloupe represents produce rich in both alpha and beta-carotene, as well as beta-cryptoxanthin. Each of these carotenoids and can be converted in the body to vitamin A, a nutrient that plays an important role in vision and immune function, as well as skin and bone health.

The beta-carotenes in some orange fruits and vegetables may potentially play a part in preventing cancer, particularly of the lung, esophagus, and stomach

Additional foods that contain alpha and beta-carotene as well as beta-cryptoxanthin include:

  • Carrots
  • Mangos
  • Winter squash
  • Pumpkins
  • Apricots
  • Oranges
  • Papayas
  • Tangerines



While some phytochemicals are pigments that give color, others do not. In fact, the largest class of phytochemicals called flavonoids are in most part colorless. These powerful antioxidants help our body counteract free-radical formation, and are cancer-fighting.

Interestingly, there are more than 4,000 different flavonoids. Whoa! And some flavonols are even found in tea, red wine, dark chocolate, and legumes.

Additional foods that contain flavonoids include:

  • Onions
  • Apples
  • Cauliflower
  • Eggplant
  • Plums
  • Celery

A food’s color is not the end all be all, and it is certainly not an exclusive indicator of phytochemical content. Many fruits and vegetables have multiple different phytochemicals that are beneficial for your health. Blueberries contain more than just anthocyanins, and tomatoes don’t just have lycopene. This is why variety is key to maintaining a healthy diet! So next time you go shopping for food, be sure to choose produce in a variety of colors to pack the biggest antioxidant punch.



[i] Schaeffeur, J. Color Me Healthy — Eating for a Rainbow of Benefits. Today’s Dietitian. 2008; 10(11), 34.
[ii] Produce for Better Health Foundation. “Phytochemical Info Center”.  Web. 18 Nov 2015.
Katrina Trisko

Katrina Trisko graduated from Boston University in 2013 with a degree in Dietetics and is currently completing her dietetic internship program through Teachers College of Columbia University in NYC, where she has finished coursework for a Masters in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.


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