Red food phytochemicals

Red fruits and vegetables get their coloring from the phytochemicals lycopene and anthocyanin.

Mostly from lycopene:

Tomatoes, watermelon, pink/red grapefruit, red carrots, red peppers and guavas.

Mostly from anthocyanin:

Strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, red currants, cherries, red grapes, blood oranges, red-flesh peaches, red apples, red pears, red beans, red cabbage, red onion, radishes and red potatoes.

Other:

Beets, rhubarb and the stems of chard get their color from phytonutrients called betalains.

Red represents love. Red suggests passion. Red is bold. And red belongs to February, thanks to Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month.

In fruits and vegetables, red is a flag of the good kind. It’s a sign that these foods are preying on “free radicals” and hopefully shielding the body from diseases.

Red pigments in everything from beets to pink grapefruits are phytochemicals at work. Think of “phyto” the way it sounds, and it is a clue: chemicals “fighting” damaging oxidation caused by those rogue molecules, or free radicals, as well as suppressing chronic inflammation that can fuel diseases, including heart and some cancers.

The red coloring comes from lycopene or anthocyanin, both potent antioxidants.

Tomatoes and watermelon pack the biggest punches of lycopene, but the body also taps it from red peppers, pomegranate, red carrots and cabbage, among others.

But unlike other instances in which heat diminishes nutrition, processing actually can boost the benefits, at least in the case of tomatoes. Processed tomato products such as juice, sauce, paste and salsa actually offer greater access to lycopene than a fresh fruit does. Sun-dried tomatoes are one of the most concentrated sources.

And interestingly, seedless watermelons tend to have more lycopene than those with seeds.

A number of scientific studies have linked lycopene to a reduced risk of cancer, especially prostate, lung and stomach, as well as cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration.

Anthocyanin shows up in hues ranging from red to purple/blue. It colors many red berries — strawberries, raspberries, cranberries — and other fruits such as cherries, red-fleshed peaches, red apples and blood oranges. Red beans, radishes and beets also are bearers of this pigment.

As an antioxidant, anthocyanin’s specialty appears to be battling inflammation, the body’s natural response to infections and injuries. But according the American Institute of Cancer Research, chronic low-grade inflammation seems to harm body tissues in ways that accelerate development of age-related health problems, such as hardening of the arteries.

Inflammation also may open the door to cancer by damaging genes and increasing cell turnover and development of blood vessels that allow cancer cells to grow and spread, the AICR says.

While red-food research is ongoing and not yet conclusive, the overall benefits of a plant-based diet are indisputable. In the most recent report, scientists at Oxford University found that vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to be hospitalized or die from heart disease than people who ate meat and fish. The researchers followed almost 45,000 adults, a third of them vegetarians, for almost a dozen years and accounted for factors such as their age, whether they smoked, alcohol consumption, physical activity, education and socioeconomic background, according to the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Matt Greene, executive chef of Duvall Catering and Event Design, says color is important in menu and meal planning because it makes the plate “pop” with excitement and whets the appetite for those healthy foods.

Greene thinks red foods “tend to have a little more brightness to them,” perhaps reflective of their acidity, as in tomatoes and stone fruits. “People gravitate toward things that are bright,” he says.

Because Duvall’s kitchen cooks according to the seasons, it can be more difficult to work in the reds during winter. But there are beets readily available at this time, and red bell peppers are consistent in quality year round.

Right now, Greene is especially keen on watermelon radishes that he is getting from the GrowFood Carolina warehouse. They are large as radishes go and green on the outside surface. He sliced one open to reveal a gorgeous pinkish-red flesh — almost too pretty to eat but also too fetching to resist.

Weighing in on red

We asked several folks in our midst to name a favorite red fruit or vegetable and tell us what they find especially appealing about it. Here’s what they have to say:

Alluette Jones-Smalls, Alluette’s Cafe, downtown Charleston:

“I have so many favorite reds because I’m a vegetarian. I would say beets. Because of the vitamin content and the fact you can utilize the tops as well as the bottoms and they’re so nutritious. And they are so versatile. You can eat it raw, dress it up if you want, put it in a smoothie, there are so many things you can do with that beet. Food draws the eye, and of course that controls the brain. If it looks pretty, they are going to assume it’s going to be good until the palate gets it. I try to make colors here. Like if someone comes here and wants collard greens, I’m going to top it off with some fresh red tomatoes and raw white onion. It makes it a little more appealing.”

Kenneth Melton of Lowland Farms, Johns Island, which practices organic and sustainable farming methods:

“Right now, we’re growing red carrots, Atomic Red carrots — it’s one of our favorites. They are pretty, tasty and have huge greens on them. It’s like a regular carrot, but it’s red, or pinkish red. It’s a heirloom carrot we’ve been growing this year. We’ve been growing five different colors, and that is one of them. When we have a whole bunch together with orange, that red is really an eye-catcher. And the chefs seem to love them.”

Dr. Marian Taylor, a cardiologist at MUSC who is actively involved in the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign:

“Does red hot chile pepper count? I grew up in Puerto Rico, and so I love spicy food. The hot chile peppers are something that remind me of my childhood and the good food I used to have when I lived there. And they are heart healthy. They have capsaicin, which has been shown to be good as an anti-inflammatory. They’ve got good analgesic properties. There have been some studies that have shown they actually help prevent or reduce cancers, especially prostate cancer. They have heart-healthy effects, they cause arterial relaxation and perhaps lower blood pressure. In addition to the capsaicin, they are high in antioxidants and flavonoids, which are heart healthy as well. And they contain lots of vitamin C. So it’s a win-win.”

Kevin Johnson, chef-owner of The Grocery restaurant in downtown Charleston:

“Radishes. Just because they taste good, the crunch and the pepperiness they can add to dishes is what we kind of reach for a lot. The diversity ... some are almost sweet, some are real spicy, kind of like your Valentine’s Day. We braise them, we wood-roast them, we pickle them, we serve them raw with soft butter and coarse salt. We haven’t mentioned slicing them and putting them on the salad bar, which is what most people think of radishes as, but they are truly a sweet root vegetable not unlike turnips, or those kind of things.”

John Schumacher, the food and beverage wizard of the Charleston RiverDogs:

“Between beets and tomatoes. I remember a funny thing I did with tomatoes. ... I do have to say tomatoes. When I was living on James Island, I was so enamored with them I actually painted a 4-foot tomato on my living room wall. I don’t think the landlord was very happy with me.

“ I think about (the) tomato, how important it is in every culture ... all over the world. Originally, it was considered poisonous, it was part of the nightshade family. I think if they re-did a food pyramid for the South, I think the tomato would be part of the pyramid. Everything in the South almost starts with a tomato, whether it’s a tomato pie or a tomato sandwich — one of the first things I look forward to every year. To me, it’s all about the acidity ... a true sign between a homegrown one and one you buy in the store. That’s where the signature flavor comes from.”

Colin Quashie, an artist who lives in the Lowcountry:

“Definitely red grapefruit. I absolutely love red grapefruit. I grew up in Florida and had access to a lot of citrus growing up. It’s juicy and succulent. Red grapefruit is not quite as acidic as white grapefruit, so it tastes more orange-y to me than anything else. I love the color, how it tastes. I could sit down and eat a bag of those things in a heartbeat. I don’t particularly care for them in salads. I actually just peel them and take my time with a very sharp knife and liberate all the meat in them in a nice bowl. I love to have it refrigerated slightly and sit down with that on a hot day and just enjoy the taste of red grapefruit.”

Enan Parezo, chef owner of Twenty-Six Divine catering and cafe in downtown Charleston:

“I love tomatoes, I always have. My mom is 100 percent Italian, so obviously, a lot of tomato sauce, a lot of fresh tomatoes. I remember when we were younger, we always had a garden, we grew tomatoes. My mom used to do this really simple salad with tomatoes out of the garden, basil out of the garden and just toss that up with a little onion, oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. Can’t beat that. It’s the simplest thing. All the juice that comes out when the tomato marinates, just sop that up with bread.”