There’s no doubt that green, orange, red, and other brightly colored fruits and vegetables are packed full of nutrients. Maybe you’ve even heard the phrase “eat the rainbow” used to describe a nutrient-rich way of eating.
However, there’s a whole group of plant foods not typically thought of that should also be included in your daily diet. They contain numerous health benefits and go by the loose term of “black foods”.
Here’s more about what black foods are, why they are so incredible, and the top 10 to eat.
What Are Black Foods and Why Are They Good for You?
The black foods designation refers to plant foods that are naturally black. Some have a true black color, while others are dark purple, dark blue, and even deep shades of red. All have one characteristic in common: They contain powerful antioxidants known as anthocyanins.
To put it simply, this anthocyanin content is one of the main reasons black foods are so good for you.
Anthocyanins belong to a larger group of antioxidants known as flavonoids. They are responsible for giving fruits and vegetables blue, purple, and sometimes red coloring. This typically means that the deeper the hue of a fruit or vegetable, the more anthocyanins it contains.
Along with acting as plant pigments, anthocyanins also have supportive and protective properties.
Research indicates that these specific antioxidants appear to help attract pollinators, which is extremely important for plants to complete their life cycle. They also help to camouflage plants and repel herbivores and pests.
Isn’t it interesting how these “plant defenders” are similarly protective for the human body?
To show you their full potential, here’s a look at everything they can do.
Top Health Benefits of Anthocyanins (and Black Foods)
Free-Radical Fighting (and Anticancer Potential)
Just like any other antioxidant group, one of the most outstanding benefits of anthocyanins is their free-radical fighting power.
As you may know, free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells and tissues. They are now thought to be a major contributor to many chronic diseases and age-related conditions.
One of the best ways to minimize free radicals and prevent their damaging effects is to eat an antioxidant-rich diet. Antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals by donating an extra electron, which essentially stabilizes them and makes them harmless.
Anthocyanins are an excellent example of an antioxidant group that protects your health as you age. They have shown strong free-radical fighting ability and are able to shield your body from damage at the cellular level.
Because of these powerful protective properties, anthocyanins also have a great deal of anticancer potential. In test tube and animal models, they have specifically shown an ability to inhibit cancer cell proliferation and may slow cancer development.
Combat Chronic Inflammation
Free radical damage and chronic inflammation make up a vicious cycle within your body.
As free radicals cause harm to cells and tissues, they stimulate inflammation in the process. This type of inflammation is not the good kind that helps your body recover from injury (often called acute inflammation). Instead, it builds up and sticks around, causing a lot of stress to your health in the long run.
Unfortunately, prolonged inflammation can cause your body to generate more free radicals. The result is a downward spiral that will likely lead to some type of chronic disease if it doesn’t get addressed.
The good news is that antioxidants have power against both free radicals and inflammation. They get to the root cause (free radical damage) and reduce the inflammatory load within your body.
As a case in point, studies have shown that anthocyanins are able to reduce free radical damage to cells and lower inflammation in the process. This means that consuming anthocyanin-rich foods (aka black foods) is a powerful weapon against disease-causing chronic inflammation.
Many types of antioxidants promote heart health, and research is indicating that anthocyanins may be at the top of the list.
To start with, several studies have indicated that drinking anthocyanin-rich juice can help lower blood pressure. In one, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure dropped with systolic being the most significant. Another similar study found that blood pressure dropped and stayed lowered for 6 hours after drinking the juice.
Perhaps even more telling than these relatively small studies are two “mega trials”.
The first followed over 34,000 postmenopausal women. It found that there was a link between a higher consumption of anthocyanin-rich berries and a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
A second research study that followed over 93,000 women had similar results, finding that high anthocyanin intake is associated with a lower risk of heart attack. An excellent reason to regularly eat a range of black foods!
May Protect Against Type 2 Diabetes
Along with safeguarding your heart, consuming anthocyanins may also lower your risk of diabetes.
Like many other chronic diseases, inflammation plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. This is something we already know anthocyanins can reduce.
In addition, some research indicates that certain types of anthocyanins may reduce blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. However, there are limited human trials so far and some conflicting results, so nothing is “conclusive” yet.
That being said, one research review did suggest that an anthocyanin-rich diet could reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by as much as 15%. Obviously, other healthy lifestyle changes will help as well, but this is a fairly significant risk reduction.
Neuroprotective Effects that May Boost Brain Function
It’s no secret that cognitive decline is often a “side effect” of aging. Diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia continue to be a significant challenge with limited treatment options.
Perhaps the best way to deal with a loss of brain function is to do everything you can to prevent it. And something that research has made very clear over the last few decades is that what you eat has a big impact on brain health.
To be clear, your brain needs a wide range of nutrients to function at its peak. There’s no single superfood that will prevent or slow cognitive decline. However, foods, nutrients, and plant compounds with neuroprotective properties may be the most essential.
In essence, a neuroprotective agent works by protecting nerve cells from oxidative (aka free radical) damage and toxic substances. This is absolutely key to your brain and entire nervous system staying healthy.
Studies indicate that anthocyanins, particularly one known as cyanidin, possess neuroprotective properties and may help to shield neuronal cells from oxidative stress. In fact, some researchers believe that anthocyanins may be very important for slowing the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The bottom line is that natural black foods have a key role to play in the health of your brain. Consume them often for optimal results!
Anti-Aging Effects (Including for Your Skin)
If you look at the cumulative effects of anthocyanins, it’s clear that they are major anti-aging compounds. It cannot be overstated how important it is to combat chronic inflammation if you want to age healthfully. A sound heart and mind are critical as well.
Now, again, your body does need a range of nutrients and antioxidants to function optimally. You don’t want to focus only on one group and expect it to be a magic bullet.
Still, it’s important you don’t make the mistake of overlooking dark-colored plant foods just because they aren’t as vibrantly colored as others. As one research review stated, anthocyanins are “good antioxidants for preventing or reducing the risk of disease.”
That’s quite an impressive statement and gives you an idea of how eating black foods can boost longevity!
However, the anti-aging effects of anthocyanins don’t stop there. Recent research suggests that anthocyanins may also help protect your skin from UVB rays.
This is exciting news because UV damage is one of the biggest age-accelerators for your skin, causing it to look prematurely old. Anything you can do to protect your skin will keep your complexion looking younger for longer.
Other Potential Benefits of Anthocyanins
To put it simply, there are almost too many benefits of anthocyanins to list. The most impactful and well-researched ones have already been explored in detail, but a few more are worth mentioning.
Vision Health— Studies show that anthocyanins, particularly those from dark-colored berries, are very supportive of healthy vision. They have a protective effect on your eyes and may improve visual function. Anthocyanin extracts (from berries) have also shown potential for preventing retinal degeneration. More human studies are still needed to confirm these effects.
Antimicrobial Properties— Interestingly, anthocyanins have shown a range of antimicrobial activity. They appear to especially inhibit the growth of certain food-borne pathogens, including Listeria and E. Coli. One extract also showed activity against Staphylococcus aureus, the bacteria that can cause staph infections.
May Support Immune Function— According to one research review, anthocyanins may reduce the incidence of immune system diseases. This conclusion comes from studies showing the potential of anthocyanins to calm allergic inflammation, which involves immune system hypersensitivity, and aid certain autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. However, most of these studies have been lab or animal models, so results are not conclusive.
May Have an Anti-Obesity Effect— Animal studies indicate that anthocyanins have anti-obesity properties. One large human trial also discovered a correlation between a higher intake of flavonoids, particularly anthocyanins, and lower fat mass. The study used sets of identical twins to rule out genetic factors, which gives added weight to the findings.
May Support Lung Function— A surprising study from 2016 indicated that consuming more anthocyanins may help prevent age-related decline in lung function. This analysis was drawn from a limited sample group, but it does give you food for thought (or perhaps food for your lungs).
Top 10 Black Foods List
Now that you know more about how incredible anthocyanins are, how do you get more of them?
It’s hard to go wrong with eating a range of dark-colored fruits and vegetables, but there are a few that stand out from the rest. You may have already noticed a theme of anthocyanin-rich berries containing some of the best health benefits, and you’ll find several of them on the list.
Without further ado, here are the best black(ish) foods for your daily diet:
- Black Elderberries— Elderberries have well-known immune-boosting properties and are high up on the list for anthocyanin content. They also have an excellent vitamin C and fiber content.
- Black Currants— Currants are popular in Europe but less so in the U.S. However, you may want to consider finding or growing these berries, since they are one of the richest fruits in anthocyanins.
- Blackberries and Black Raspberries— With their deep purple-black color, it’s no surprise that these berries contain good amounts of anthocyanins. They specifically contain cyanidin, the anthocyanin with neuroprotective properties.
- Black Rice— Anthocyanins are the pigments that give black rice its color, potentially making it better for you than brown or white rice. Black rice bran even rivals blueberries for antioxidant content and is less expensive.
- Blueberries— Blueberries, the original superfood, are “abundant” in anthocyanin pigments despite the fact that they are more blue than black. Do note that wild-grown blueberries tend to be higher in antioxidants than store-bought ones.
- Black Beans— The seed coat of black beans is very rich in health-boosting anthocyanins. To make this legume more digestible, soak your beans overnight before cooking them.
- Plums— Most plums contain anthocyanins, but opt for the dark purple varieties to get the greatest amount. Also, anthocyanins are mostly concentrated in the skin of plums, so be sure to leave it on when you eat them.
- Bilberries— Bilberries are one of the richest natural sources of anthocyanins, but they are down on the list because you won’t typically find them in a grocery store. However, these blue-black berries can be grown and also taken as an extract/supplement.
- Eggplant— The deep purple-black color of eggplant tells you of its anthocyanin content. Again, most of these antioxidants are concentrated in the skin, so be sure to leave it on.
- Red Cabbage— It might be a stretch to include red cabbage on a black foods list, but it has a truly impressive amount of anthocyanins. Studies show that this brassica has over 20 different anthocyanins, not to mention cancer-fighting properties.
Get the Most Out of Black Foods
Clearly, there are numerous reasons to include more black foods in your diet. And many, particularly dark-colored berries, have the added bonus of being delicious.
The best way to approach black foods and anthocyanins is to simply eat a variety of them. This ensures that you are getting different individual antioxidants and plant compounds that all have their own unique benefits.
Of course, it’s also very important to buy organic produce whenever possible. You don’t want the harmful effects of pesticides to negate the beneficial properties of anthocyanins. Better yet, try growing some black berries, beans, or eggplant to get anthocyanin-rich food straight from your garden!