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What are anthocyanins and why are purple foods so healthy?

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Plant compounds called anthocyanins have hit the headlines and are linked to a range of health benefits. We reveal what they are and which foods contain them.

At BBC Good Food we believe eating a balanced and varied diet, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, is best for health. But what's so special about purple fruit and vegetables in particular?

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What are anthocyanins?

All brightly coloured fruit and vegetables contain plant pigments that play a key role in protecting our bodies. Many naturally, purple-coloured foods contain compounds called anthocyanins, as well as influencing the colour of the food, these compounds also have benefits for health. Anthocyanins are water-soluble and have antioxidant properties; they can be found in deep red, purple and blue fruit and vegetables.

While studies are ongoing, it's too early to say conclusively whether purple foods containing anthocyanins, deserve to be lauded as 'superfoods'. Previous research has linked anthocyanins to a wide variety of health benefits, including increased longevity, cardiovascular health, cancer prevention and dementia. Anthocyanins may also improve vision and have a neuro-protective effect.

Which foods contain anthocyanins?

Anthocyanins are found in high concentrations in fruits like berries, currants and grapes as well as aubergine (in the skin), red cabbage and cherries. Here are some other popular anthocyanin-rich foods:

Blueberries

Studies associate a regular and moderate intake of blueberries and other anthocyanin-rich foods with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and with improved weight maintenance. More evidence, particularly human evidence, is needed to better understand the potential for blueberries. However, it is widely agreed that including delicious blueberries in your diet is beneficial.

Read more about the health benefits of blueberries.

Pomegranate

The jewel-like colour of pomegranate is a consequence of its anthocyanin content. Pomegranates are a good source of fibre, and provide vitamins A, C and E as well as other plant compounds with protective properties like tannins.

Studies suggest that including pomegranate in your diet can help prevent various risk factors including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, oxidative stress, hyper-glycemia, and inflammation.

Read more about the health benefits of pomegranate.

Purple sweet potato

Purple sweet potatoes have been in the spotlight over recent years. They are commonly eaten on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is home to an exceptionally healthy elderly population – a large number of whom are over the age of 100. Rates of dementia on Okinawa are reported to be as much as 50% lower than in the West.

Some scientists believe such healthy longevity may be down to the large quantities of purple sweet potato in the Okinawan diet. To date, however, there are only a limited number of studies examining the health benefits of the purple sweet potato, and therefore it’s impossible to say whether the Okinawan’s healthy old age is due to this one food.

A note on beetroot

Beetroot’s deep purple colour comes from plant chemicals called betalains, not anthocyanins. Like anthocyanins, betalains have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Also found in the stems of chard and rhubarb, betalains are especially rich in the flesh and skin of beetroots.

Should I be eating more purple foods?

Although anthocyanins have many benefits for maintaining health they are not essential nutrients. That said a regular intake of naturally purple-coloured fruit and vegetables are an excellent addition to a varied diet, but it’s also important to remember that balance is key, so ideally we should aim for a rainbow of differently coloured fruits and vegetables for optimum health benefits.

Are dietary anthocyanins safe for everyone?

The UK, Europe, US and Canada currently have no recommended daily reference intakes or toxicity levels for anthocyanins, when consumed from food. Anthocyanins are rapidly absorbed so a regular, moderate intake of dark purple, red and blue fruits and vegetables are generally recognised as safe for most people, unless you have an allergy to a specific fruit or vegetable.

For most people, a balanced and varied diet should provide all the nutrition you need. Speak to your GP or healthcare provider if you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies or are considering taking supplements.

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This article was last reviewed on 21 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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