Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Color Me Healthy: Mastering the art of eating well.

Jan 10, 2011 08:12PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Deciding between the light, low, reduced, or carb/fat/sugar/gluten/sodium-free products on store shelves can make grocery shopping comparable to solving an algebraic equation without a calculator. Even worse, each time you choose one product over another, you’re choosing for or against your health. It’s that simple. Too bad deciphering the content labels isn’t. Is there really enough time in the day to study and interpret the minutia of food labels when we’re squeezing our shopping in between work, exercise, kids, family, friends, and everything else?

One way to speed things up and to minimize label dysphoria is to stick with what we’ve known since preschool—colors. Understanding the correlation between color and nutrition can help us make good decisions in the grocery store, and, most importantly, it can make us feel better about the time and money we spend on eating healthy.

Two things cause color in food: food coloring—an artificial process used to alter the appearance of the foods we eat—and phytonutrients. The latter has to do with the micronutrients that cause colorful variations in different fruits and vegetables. These compounds have the ability to fight disease causing agents, like free radicals, that can lead to many diseases common in the U.S.—including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), and vision and memory problems, to name a few. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cites several studies that support the health benefits of phytonutrients. One study found that men with high cholesterol who included carotenoids (a phytonutrient found in oranges, carrots, squash) in their diet decreased their risk of heart attack by 36 percent.

Another study found a 43 percent decrease in the development of age-related macular degeneration (a common vision disorder that can lead to blindness) with the addition of fruits and vegetables containing carotenoids.

Alas, not all color in the food we eat occurs naturally. Just because those Cheetos are orange (as are our fingers after consuming them), it doesn’t mean they are full of nutrients. Food coloring, an integral part of what we eat, is regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Unfortunately, the dyes FD&C yellow nos. 5 and 6 (part of what makes Cheetos glow in the dark) do not contain any phytonutrients. The FDA’s reasoning behind the use of non-nutritive food coloring ranges from enhancing colors that occur naturally to providing color for “fun” foods.

Enjoyment of the foods we eat is not only associated with taste but with appearance, as well. (For example, the color blue is said to be an appetite suppressant because it rarely occurs in nature. Some weight loss experts even suggest dying food black or blue to jump start weight loss!) Before a food is even tried, our eyes must convince us that the food is ok to eat.

In terms of processed, prepackaged foods, bright colors are often associated with unhealthy junk food. Moreover, for more than 25 years, researchers have suspected a link between the use of food coloring and the rise in the occurrence of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) in children. Studies have suggested a connection, but the results have not been conclusive.

What we do know from reading the labels is that most processed foods contain tons of sugar, and scientists agree that too much sugar is associated with a plethora of health concerns from tooth decay to obesity.

Learning to read a food label is an important part of being a health conscious consumer, but being able to instantly pick out what is naturally healthy for us is far more effective. You may forget the definitions of complicated words like phytonutrients, but remember that adding naturally colorful fruits and vegetables to your diet is healthy and simple.

Here is a list of colors, causes, benefits, and examples of colorful phytonutrients:

carotenoids cause this pigmentation and help protect against certain cancers, heart disease, and macular degeneration. Found in: carrots, peaches, corn, lemon

lycopenes and antioxidants protect against heart disease and cancer (especially prostate). Found in: apples, cherries, cranberries, tomatoes.

chlorophyll and leutin for healthy eyes. Found in: avocados, broccoli, lettuce, peas.

Blue/Purple: anthocyanins are antioxidants helpful for memory, and cancer and heart disease prevention. Found in: blueberries, plums, grapes, raisins.

anthoxanthins help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and protect against stomach cancer. Found in: garlic, onions, potatoes, cauliflower.

Tips to increase color in your diet, the healthy way

Add vegetables like lettuce, onions, and tomatoes to sandwiches; keep vegetables and fruits in your house cleaned, cut, and ready to eat (you can even buy them that way); use low-fat dips with vegetables for a snack; add vegetables to soups, stews, and even pizza.

Getting the most out of your fruits and veggies

To maximize the nutrients gained from eating colorful fruits and vegetables remember to keep the skin on in order to preserve fiber content. Also, steaming instead of boiling prevents the breakdow of nutrients due to high temperatures.

Online resources

Eating healthy can be expensive, go to the CDC website for age-specific daily recommendations, recipes, and budget tips. Need more guidance on label reading? Visit

--Sarah Hagerty

What’s Up? does not give medical advice. This material is simply a discussion of current information, trends, and practices. Please seek the advice of your physician before making any changes to your lifestyle or health routine.