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It's widely known that fruits and vegetables are our some of the most healthful sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but research reveals the increasing importance of phytochemicals that are also in fresh produce. 

Hannah Burkhalter, MS, RD
December 12, 2016

In an effort to eat better, you've probably been told to "eat a colorful diet" many times over. Yeah, yeah. Eat more plants... this is not news. But does that phrase just imply that you should eat more fruit and vegetables? 

It turns out there is much more truth behind that advice than simply eating a more well-rounded diet. Fruits and vegetables are low-calorie foods that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water, making them a go-to healthy option.

The not-so-obvious bonus is that fruits and vegetables also contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are non-nutritive, meaning they don't provide energy or contribute calories, but they do contribute health benefits, such as antioxidant properties. Phytochemicals reflect light on the visible spectrum, which is what gives fruits and vegetables their color. Phytochemicals work synergistically with the other good things that edible plants have, like those vitamins, minerals, and fiber, to promote health and decrease disease risk.

Each color of fruits and vegetables has different types of phytochemicals. Though exact interactions are not yet known, we know associations between different colored fruits and vegetables and various health benefits exist, adding weight to the age-old advice that says eating a colorful plate is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. So, instead of aiming to eat more fruits and vegetables just to lose weight, eat them because you know that in addition to being a low-calorie, nutritious food, there are bioactive phytochemicals within them that truly help your body.

Produce companies rarely include information on which phytochemicals are in their foods, making it even more important you know nature's color coding system. Here, the main color categories of fruits and vegetables, their phytochemicals, and the associated benefits:

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Fontana

Red – lycopene

Lycopene plays a role in cell communication and has strong antioxidant capacity.

  • tomatoes
  • watermelon
  • pink grapefruit
  • guava
  • apricots
  • tomato-based products

Red-Purple – anthocyanins

Anthocyanins are a type of flavanoid, which has shown to possibly prevent cell mutations and cancer.

  • grapes
  • blackberries
  • black rice
  • red cabbage
  • red wine
  • raspberries
  • blueberries
  • cranberries
  • blackcurrant
  • cherries
  • eggplant

Katherine Flynn

Orange – alpha and beta carotene

Alpha- and beta-carotene are both types of carotenoids, which are antioxidants. These carotenoids create vitamin A in your body. Vitamin A is essential for growth, immune response, and eyesight.

  • carrots
  • mangos
  • pumpkin
  • sweet potatoes
  • red bell peppers

Orange-Yellow – beta-cryptoxanthin 

Beta cryptoxanthin has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antihistamine properties. It's closely related to the more familiar beta-carotene.

  • cantaloupe
  • peaches
  • tangerines
  • papaya
  • persimmons
  • oranges

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Green – glucosinolates

Glucosinolates may reduce cancer risk because they protect against oxidative damage. They also activate enzymes that are involved in removing carcinogens, or cancer-causing compounds, from your body. Cook vegetables that are high in glucosinolates by steaming them. Steaming retains the nutrients, while methods like boiling or microwaving cause the highest loss. 

  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • turnip
  • bok choy
  • kale

Yellow-Green – lutein and zeaxanthin

Lutein and zeaxanthin are members of a group of pigments called xanthophylls, which are also carotenoids. Eating more of these two compounds has been associated with a decreased risk for diseases of the eye that come with aging, like cataracts   and macular degeneration.

  • spinach
  • avocado
  • watercress
  • green beans
  • green bell peppers
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • peas

Photo: Ben Pruchnie / Getty

White/No Color – allyl sulfides and flavonoids

White or colorless fruits and vegetables still have phytochemicals. Allyl sulfides may help prevent bone loss in women with osteoporosis, and studies show it has a powerful antibacterial effect.

  • leeks
  • garlic
  • onion