Today it’s not the common orange variety, but rather the amethyst-colored carrots which are considered to be a superfood. Did you know carrots were originally that color?
Are orange carrots GMO? Well they are genetically modified, but it happened naturally.
As early as 900 A.D. there is historical evidence that cultivated carrots were purple and yellow in color. The earliest ones date to the areas of present day Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria. Orange didn’t show up until the 1500’s in northern Europe, where it was the result of a genetic mutation.
A given plant would produce yellow, red, and orange varieties, but not all of one color. It is believed the Dutch cultivated these natural genetically modified crops and were able to breed them to produce the 100% orange variety we know today. (1)
With today’s common orange carrot, it is the beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor) and similar carotenoids which are responsible for producing its bright color.
With the heirloom purple carrots – which are once again becoming popular – their pigment comes from anthocyanin content.
What are anthocyanins?
So far over 6,000 types of plant flavonoids have been identified. Anthocyanins are one group in particular which stand out for their antioxidant content. (2)
Anthocyanins are responsible for producing the violet berries, fruits and vegetables. Depending on the pH of the plant, the shade of these flavonoids can range from bright red – as with red raspberries – to the dark blue skin of blueberries. Intense concentrations of anthocyanins can even appear black, such as the case with the black soybean’s seed coating. Aside from neutralizing free radicals (by donating one of their electrons) they are researched for numerous health benefits including anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and even anti-cancer characteristics.
Check out Plant Pigments and Their Manipulation for a scholarly understanding.
Being researched for something does not mean they are proven to be useful for a given disease or condition.
Even though they demonstrate significant antioxidant activity in plants and in the lab, it is not well understood what they do in the human body after digestion. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, a number of “hit jobs” were published suggesting anthocyanins were of little benefit to human health, because less than 5% were believed to be absorbed.
While it is true they have low bioavailability, research during the current decade has supported their beneficial effects (3):
- They occur in hundreds of different structures and the bioavailability among them can vary greatly.
- They cross the blood brain barrier. Not many water or fat soluble antioxidants can do that.
- Low levels detected in the blood after ingestion may be partly explained by higher levels found elsewhere in the body, especially the kidney (2 to 4x higher in animal organs measured).
- Some purple berries might be potent enough where only a small fraction of their anthocyanins are needed in the blood for biological effects to occur.
- What they break down into during digestion – the metabolites – appear to also have protective and antioxidant activity on their own.
We may not fully understand the reds, blues, and purple colors found in plants, but these anthocyanins are good for you according to the research.
Because we don’t understand their absorption and how they metabolize in the human body, it’s why consuming diverse sources of them are important.
Among the hundreds of different anthocyanin structures, we don’t yet know which ones are producing which benefits.
That brings us to the color purple. Fruits and vegetables for these anthocyanin types are among of the least consumed in the Western diet.
The most consumed fruit in America is the banana which is going extinct (Cavendish variety). As you can guess from its yellow color, there are almost no anthocyanins inside.
Number 2 on the list are apples, which have the reds but not the plum, periwinkle, violet, and indigo hues seen with other fruits.
When it comes to the most commonly consumed vegetables in the US, the data is a dietary disgrace. (4)
Regarding these top 7 categories, of course you can cook purple sweet potatoes, carrots, and even corn, but almost no one buys those vibrant varieties. Instead, most people prefer the common varieties.
That same USDA report also says things like this:
“French fries and pizza contribute to the high consumption”
That was in reference to the food sources for the two most consumed vegetables; potatoes and tomatoes.
Yes, the USDA still counts a serving of In-N-Out fries no differently than it does a serving of broccoli, at least in terms of your vegetable servings per day.
Pretty ridiculous, right?
Benefits of purple vegetables
Not all types are necessarily better. Going back to the carrot, the orange contains the natural form of vitamin A, which is lacking in many other colors. So even though the maroon and plum colored carrots have higher anthocyanin, their total antioxidant activity measures as being comparable to the orange. (5)
However with potatoes, the white and Russet don’t offer much in terms of vitamin A. That’s why the Okinawan purple vegetable – a sweet potato – measures as having 2-3x more antioxidants. Vitamins in purple fruit can differ too, but the vitamin C and A rarely produce the lion’s share of activity in these plants. Rather it’s the anthocyanins which do.
Edible plants with these hues come in many different shapes and sizes throughout the world.
Some would say the exotic rambutan belongs on this list, which is a small Indonesian purple fruit with spikes. The problem is that the outside is spiky and no one eats it. The edible inside is all white.
Another disqualifier is the South American melon pear or pepino dulce in Spanish. It’s a yellow fruit with purple stripes. However those streaked dark portions are only 5 to 20% of the peel’s surface, with the inside being entirely yellow. Some say it resembles an egg-shaped cucumber, since it’s more oval than long.
Then there’s the star apple or caimito in Spanish. It’s sometimes called a Nicaraguan, Mexican, Haitian, or Hawaiian fruit since it’s cultivated in those countries. Yes, it really is lavender on the inside, but there’s no ORAC antioxidant measurement which has been done on it. Being a pastel, it probably isn’t high.
Nor do we have an entry for the edible fruit of the west Indian tree which goes by the name jamun or jambul (Syzygium cumini). It’s smooth and looks almost like a Kalamata olive.
What follows is a list of foods which do count, conveniently ranked from lowest to highest antioxidant content.
The measurement method is ORAC, which is the most accurate way to measure free radical scavenging activity in the lab. Measuring on the cellular level in real time throughout a human body is obviously not possible, but the hypothesis is that higher ORAC values correlate with higher antioxidant activity if they are absorbed.
Purple Fruits and Vegetables List
|40.||Eggplant, boiled – This long nightshade veggie is considered Italian, but its origin is India. The Japanese variety has a similar amount of antioxidants.||245|
|39.||Pitaya – The cactus with purple fruit, or juicy reddish depending on variety. They’re oval with hard – not fuzzy – spikes on the outside.||760|
|38.||Carrots, raw – All colors are comparable.||697|
|37.||Eggplant, raw – It’s a big purple vegetable that looks like a cucumber or zucchini, more than an egg shape. It’s very bitter and chewy without cooking.||932|
|36.||Brazilian grape tree fruit – Tree with edible purple fruit that grows on its trunk. Native to South America.||1,511|
|35.||Purple onions – These are the same thing as red onions.||1,521|
|34.||Black grapes – They look black because of the intense anthocyanin content in their skin.||1,746|
|33.||Acai juice and frozen puree – Despite the hype, acai bowls are not good for you because of all the added sugar.||1,767|
|32.||Beets, raw – Is beetroot a purple vegetable? Depends who you ask, but we say the dark pink should count.||1,776|
|31.||Prune juice – Even after processing they’re good for you.||2,036|
|30.||Purple cauliflower, raw – Large and bright, this vegetable has over 15% more antioxidants than kale when equal weights are compared.||2,084|
|29.||Black rice, uncooked – Also known for the brand name which sells it; purple Forbidden Rice.||2,215|
|28.||Purple cauliflower, cooked – Even with antioxidant deterioration from the heat, it’s still higher than raw because it’s more concentrated due to the water evaporation of cooking it.||2,210|
|27.||Black cherry juice – Another juice that holds up well.||2,370|
|26.||Concord grape juice – The benefit of resveratrol will largely be lost from pasteurization since its very heat sensitive.
|25.||Red leaf lettuce – The Byzantium shade on these definitely should count.||2,426|
|24.||Red cabbage, cooked – Some ask if this is a big round purple vegetable that looks like a cabbage… no this is cabbage. However it’s most often called red.||2,496|
|23.||Mangosteen, raw – A fruit like lychee, in that it’s white on the inside and colored on the outside.||2,510|
|22.||Purple sweet potato, raw – This bright purple vegetable grows in the ground.||2,720|
|21.||Kalamata olives – These small ovals are from Greece.||3,130|
|20.||Red cabbage, boiled – As with cauliflower, boiling it down concentrates the antioxidant content, even though some is destroyed in the process.||3,145|
|19.||Figs, raw – The Mission variety is a dark purple fruit, while most others are pinkish-green and will look brown when dried.
|18.||Raisins, seedless – Easier than eating the tiny fruits with seeds inside, their drawback is high sugar content.||3,406|
|17.||Brazilian grape tree, skin only – Despite its name, it’s also a Florida tree with purple fruit.||5,230|
|16.||Blackberries, raw – Crush these and you will see their real color is indigo, but the flesh looks black due to the concentration.||5,905|
|15.||Plums, raw – They’re a greenish purple fruit when fresh.||6,100|
|14.||Wild bilberries, raw – Often touted for eye health, these are blue on the outside with intense hues of magenta and tyrian inside.
|13.||Black Diamond plums, fresh – A branded cultivar that’s very dark.||7,581|
|12.||Black currants, fresh – More popular in Europe, especially for jams and jellies.||7,957|
|11.||Prunes (dried plums) – Their advantages are not just for your constipated grandma!||8,059|
|10.||Pink beans (uncooked) – When raw these look lavender pink.||8,320|
|9.||Black raspberry juice – Another juice that’s healthy, but not good for diabetics in excess due to the sugar.||10,460|
|8.||Purple corn, fresh (uncooked) – This is different than blue corn. Measurements taken after cooking have not yet been published.||10,800|
|7.||Elderberries, fresh – Aside from those in America, there are dozens of foreign variations including Mexican, Chinese, European, and Australian.||14,697|
|6.||Saskatoon berries, fresh – An unusual purple fruit in America, but these little round berries can be found growing in northern Canada. They taste like apples.||15,000|
|5.||Aronia berries, fresh – A tiny fruit with orange-red inside.||16,062|
|4.||Black raspberries, fresh – Rare to find for sale at a store. Really they’re more juicy and reddish when crushed. Less fuzzy than the red.||19,220|
|3.||Brazilian grape tree fruit, skin extract – Since these are yellowish-white on the inside, its the skin which has the bulk of the antioxidant.||25,514|
|2.||Maqui berry powder, freeze dried – Make your smoothies jasmine purple with a spoonful of this.||27,600|
|1.||Acai powder, freeze dried – This exotic superfood has a staggering 5,600% more antioxidants than the acai juice used in bowls!||102,700|
Even though they don’t rank well, don’t ignore the vegetables on the list. They offer benefits of vitamin C, vitamin B-6, minerals like magnesium and iron, plus other essential nutrients your body needs. Though what they do not offer much of is antioxidant content, at least if you’re comparing relative to the exotic superfoods.
The best plant to eat will be acai for the following reasons:
- The freeze-dried powder has the highest antioxidant activity according to ORAC testing.
- It’s readily accessible to Americans. Not something you can say about most rare tropical plants on this list.
- It’s reasonably affordable on a per serving basis. Since the powder is so concentrated, you only need to use a spoon or two of acai at a time.
The reason the freeze-dried powder blows away the acai bowl base by over 50-fold is because the anthocyanins in it degrade rapidly when exposed to air, heat, and light. Even without pasteurization, the manufacturing processes for making acai juice or frozen puree results in substantial antioxidant loss.
This is why once you get the powder, after you open it we recommended you store it in an air-tight bag, to maximize its nutrition.
Here’s how we use it ourselves…
We love simple and this superfood breakfast is just that. Make some oatmeal with sweetener of choice, if desired. After you have let it cool down for 5 minutes, stir in a spoonful of raw unsweetened cocoa (cacao) and acai powder.
Then top with seeds/nuts and berries of your liking that are red and blue. Don’t go broke in the process, as frozen are not only cheaper, but also have higher antioxidant than fresh (because freezing stops antioxidant degradation). Just thaw your favorite berries in the fridge overnight and they will be good to go by the AM.
On Amazon, you can buy Navitas organic acai powder and their unsweetened cocoa powder. These are what we use ourselves and where we buy them, because they are such a good deal.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.