Anthocyanins are becoming increasingly popular as a way to improve health. And, they do have considerable potential. This means we need foods high in anthocyanins regularly in our diet.
But first, we need to know more about these compounds. This article covers three key areas – which are all critical to your health.
- What are anthocyanins?
- What health benefits do they offer?
- Which foods should you turn to?
After all, knowledge is critical if you want to live long and stay healthy.
In a Hurry? Skip Straight to the Foods!
What are Anthocyanins?
Anthocyanins are a class of compound, often found in fruits and vegetables. They’re a subset of a much larger group called flavonoids and flavonoids have been linked to many health benefits as well.
Anthocyanins are responsible for the bright blues and purples that you see in berries and are also found in foods with bright red-orange coloration – like blood oranges (2).
The compounds occur in all plants. They’re most common in the fruits and flowers, but they can be found in roots, leaves and stems as well.
Some foods are much more powerful sources of anthocyanins than others – such as blackberries and blueberries.
Anthocyanin mixtures are sometimes used as food coloring as well, typically in highly concentrated doses (3). The health implications in this context are poorly understood. Regardless, you’ll always see more benefits from whole foods.
Anthocyanins and Health
There have been many health claims about anthocyanins. Research supports the idea that they may be beneficial (4). Key effects include the following:
- Reduced inflammation. There is substantial evidence that anthocyanins can lower inflammation and provide various related health benefits (5,6,7,8).
- Improved cognitive function. Oxidative damage is known to play a role in cognitive issues, including brain aging and memory problems. As antioxidants, anthocyanins may help reduce these issues (9). One study found that an anthocyanin-rich diet could delay mental aging in seniors by up to 2.5 years (10).
- Reduced cardiovascular disease risk. A diet high in anthocyanins from various sources may reduce heart disease risk. Multiple studies have suggested this outcome (11,12,13).
- Decreased cholesterol levels. High cholesterol may play a role in heart disease. Research shows that anthocyanins can increase levels of HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol levels (14). The compounds may decrease cholesterol absorption as well (15).
- Cancer prevention. Early theories and research suggest a role in cancer prevention. Studies have mostly focused on animal models and cell lines, and tend to use anthocyanin-rich extracts, rather than whole foods (16,17,18,19).
- Improved liver function. There hasn’t been much research in this area but one study suggests that anthocyanins can help improve liver damage caused by alcohol abuse (20).
- Eyesight improvements. Anthocyanins have been shown to help people adjust to light and dark, improving vision in the short-term (21,22).
- Less obesity. A diet high in anthocyanins may help lower the risk of obesity (23). This area needs more research and is likely to depend on which sources of anthocyanins are being consumed.
How Much Evidence is There?
These claims sound amazing and many may even be true. But, research into anthocyanins is in its early stages. There is still a lot we don’t know.
- Anthocyanins are an entire class of compounds. Each individual compound will have different interactions and reactions within the body – causing different effects. Right now, we don’t know a fraction of the mechanisms at play, let alone how they interact with each other (24).
- We don’t know which compounds affect health or what doses are needed to promote benefits.
- Anthocyanins are difficult to study because phytochemicals (compounds from plants) interact with one another. As a result, researchers struggle to determine which compound(s) were responsible for observed effects (25).
- Anthocyanins also degrade when ingested and it’s not clear what proportion is actually used by the body (26,27). Some anthocyanins do appear to be relatively stable (28,29) but that may not be true for all of them (30).
Even so, it’s clear there is some potential for health benefits. The research highlighted earlier shows that.
The same is true for antioxidants and for flavonoids – and anthocyanins fall into both of those categories. The site The Worlds Healthiest Foods offers extra insight into what flavonoids are and why they matter so much.
Why Recommend Anthocyanins?
If the evidence is limited, recommending anthocyanins as a way to improve health might seem silly. But, it’s not. There are multiple reasons why they’re worth pursuing.
- There have been many studies done, including those referenced earlier. These show anthocyanins have potential, even if we don’t know all the mechanisms or the relevant doses.
- Anthocyanins come from foods that are already common in our diet. We know they’re safe in regular quantities.
- Getting a large variety of plant-based nutrients is important for a healthy diet regardless. Anthocyanins are one example of these nutrients.
- The foods that offer anthocyanins also contain many other compounds that are beneficial to health.
- A diet high in fruits and vegetables is good for you – regardless of the specific compounds consumed.
The Best Foods for Anthocyanins
So then, it’s clear that anthocyanins have considerable potential, even though many of their benefits are unproven. Thankfully, all the foods high in anthocyanins also offer other nutrients and plant-based compounds. This makes them valuable additions to your diet.
Without a doubt, berries are the best source of anthocyanins. There are also many different options to choose from. As a general rule, the darker the better. This means black raspberries will offer more anthocyanins than regular raspberries and so on.
The most prominent examples are the following.
- Blackberries. With their dark coloring, it’s hardly surprising that blackberries are a powerful anthocyanin source.
- Blackcurrants. Blackcurrants may be less common but they’re an especially potent source of anthocyanins.
- Blueberries. These are associated with many health benefits and offer a high concentration of anthocyanins.
- Cranberries. As their coloring is lighter, the anthocyanin content will be lower for cranberries. They’re still a good source though and offer other benefits.
- Raspberries. Like with cranberries, raspberries aren’t as powerful for anthocyanins. But, they do contain a decent amount and offer other beneficial compounds as well
- Black raspberries. These are much less common, but they have more anthocyanins than regular raspberries. Their flavor is interesting as well.
- Cherries. Anthocyanins are present in all types of cherries. But they’re more prevalent in tart cherries. Tart cherries also offer other benefits, such as being powerful for reducing inflammation.
Other berries will contain anthocyanins as well. This includes the ones that are common, along with more obscure options. The site Serious Eats has a list of some of these.
From a botanical perspective, pomegranates are actually berries (31), but we never refer to them as such. Regardless, the deep red color of pomegranates indicates that they are a key source of anthocyanins.
Pomegranates are sometimes considered a superfood as well because they’re rich in beneficial compounds. Research has also linked pomegranates to health benefits, including decreased inflammation (32,33), a reduction in blood pressure (34), lower oxidative stress (35) and improved bone health (36).
Anthocyanins are found in other fruit as well. Again, higher levels are associated with darker colors. The most prominent examples include:
- Plums. Most varieties of plums will contain anthocyanins, with darker plums offering more.
- Grapes. Not surprisingly, dark red grapes are the best source of anthocyanins. And yes, that means you’ll find some in red wine as well.
- Bananas. Yes, really. There is some debate about this point, as bananas don’t seem like they should contain anthocyanins (37). But, recent research and analysis suggest that bananas are a good source of the compounds (38,39).
- Oranges. Anthocyanins aren’t just limited to purple fruit, oranges have significant levels as well. Blood oranges are a particularly good choice, as the color of their flesh suggests.
- Mangos. Similarly, you’ll find anthocyanins in the flesh of mangos.
- Peaches. Red-fleshed peaches are your best choice for anthocyanins. The levels can even be close to what you see in berries.
There are also purple carrots, which are popular for their appearance. Research consistently shows that these contain anthocyanins (40). Extracts from purple carrots also have antioxidant activity (41), which is typically higher than orange carrots.
White and red cabbage taste almost the same – but red cabbage is a better source of anthocyanins. This makes it an easy way to include more anthocyanins in your diet without making a dramatic change.
A similar pattern is true for red onions. The coloration means that there are more anthocyanins present. Red onions are higher in antioxidants as well.
They can also be a good way to make food more interesting.
Black Rice (Forbidden Rice)
This is a more unusual source of anthocyanins – but it’s still a very relevant one.
Black rice has a long history in Asia, but it’s only recently becoming popular the United States and other western companies. The site Legion Athletics highlights some of the health benefits that the rice offers.
The rice is also powerful because it isn’t seasonal like fruit and has a longer shelf-life. This makes it a practical and fairly inexpensive way to increase anthocyanin levels (46). Plus, black rice is lower in sugar than berries.
Other Sources of Anthocyanins
There are many other options for anthocyanins as well. For the most part, any plant-based ingredient that is red/purple or orange is likely to contain some anthocyanins. Some of these are:
You can also find anthocyanins in the red and purple versions of other fruit and vegetables. There are a surprising number of these available now, including purple tomatoes, purple okra, purple sweet potatoes and even purple asparagus.
The site Superfoodly lists various other purple fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants, including some obscure ones.
What About Beetroot?
Beetroot seems like an obvious addition to this list. Yet, despite its color, beetroot doesn’t contain anthocyanins. The coloration comes from compounds known as betalains.
Betalains are still antioxidants and they do reduce inflammation. Beetroot also contains various nutrients. So, the vegetable is still good for health, it just doesn’t contain anthocyanins.
Getting the Most Benefits
There are many different foods with anthocyanins and you could simply choose any one of them. Anthocyanin levels also tend to be higher in foods with deep colors, like blackberries, blueberries and black rice.
But, as with most healthy foods – the best solution is variety.
By including many different anthocyanin-containing foods in your diet, you get the best possible health benefits. After all, each food contains different individual compounds. For that matter, you shouldn’t just rely on the fruits and vegetables in this list.
The best outcome is to include produce of every color. Each option provides different compounds and advantages. That variety is critical for promoting overall health.
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