Good nutrition is not a black-and-white issue. Experts say when it comes to the food we eat, colour is a cue for optimal health. That’s because many of the pigments that fruits and vegetables glean their dynamic shades from are considered phytonutrients. These wonder-working compounds behave as antioxidants in our bodies, thereby hunting down cell-damaging free radicals to knock out. For this reason, food scientists believe that the more phytonutrients we consume the lower the risk for maladies such as heart disease and cancer.

Different colours of fruits and vegetables offer up different phytonutrients with varied benefits. For example, orange-fleshed vegetables and fruits such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and apricots are chockablock with the carotenoid antioxidant beta carotene, shown in a 2013 study to confer protection against coronary woes. In the body, beta carotene can also be converted to vitamin A, which helps to improve immune, reproductive, and bone health.

Red-hued items such as tomatoes and watermelon contain lycopene, the powerful pigment and carotenoid that has gained attention for its cancer-fighting prowess. Leafy vegetables in the green colour scheme such as kale and Swiss chard often deliver healthy amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, a dynamic antioxidant duo shown to bolster eye and heart health. Further, anthocyanins that provide blueberries, blackberries, and red cabbage their dark tints may improve brain functioning.

When it comes to your diet, the more diversity of cheery colours you consume, the better. A study from Colorado State University found that subjects who ate several different phytonutrients from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables experienced lower levels of DNA oxidation, an indication of free-radical damage, compared to those who ate larger amounts of only a handful of plant foods and, therefore, a more limited spectrum of antioxidants.

So when wheeling your cart through the grocery produce section and planning your meals, snacks, and desserts, remember this simple rule: the more colour the better.

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On the bright side

Try to include two different colours with your snacks and at least three different hues of vegetables and fruits at meals.

Colour Foods 
blue/purple blueberries, blackberries, dark plums, dark currants, dark grapes, purple cabbage, eggplant, purple potatoes
red raspberries, strawberries, red currants, ruby red grapefruit, cherries, pomegranate, red-skinned apples, watermelon, tomatoes, red bell pepper, radish, beets
green broccoli, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, asparagus, watercress, sea vegetables, Brussels sprouts, parsley, peas, celery, artichoke, okra, kiwi, avocado, honeydew melon
orange carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, orange bell pepper, peaches, apricots, papaya, oranges, cantaloupe
yellow yellow bell pepper, corn, yellow summer squash, mango, pineapple

About the Author

Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD, is a dietitian, nutrition writer, and recipe developer.