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The benefits of eating from the rainbow

Colorful food is real food that has to be washed, scrubbed, and peeled. Its color adds to its flavor, contrast and nutritional value. In addition, it looks good on the plate and lends itself to imaginative presentations that will stimulate the appetite—and not the waistline.

One of the best ways to achieve a healthful diet is to consume a full spectrum of colorful foods throughout the day. This variety of color will ensure the correct balance of nutrients. Colorful food is real food that has to be washed, scrubbed, and peeled. Its color adds to its flavor, contrast and nutritional value. In addition, it looks good on the plate and lends itself to imaginative presentations that will stimulate the appetite—and not the waistline.

The culinary world is full of shapes, flavors, colors and textures that drive our business and ensure our customers’ satisfaction and desire to return. But no matter how beautiful the food, if it is not delicious it will not sell. While our patrons want flavor, they also want food that is healthy—but the preconceived notion that nutritious food is flavorless and bland sets the stage for failure, not success. A chef should strive to develop a dish that not only tastes great but is nutritionally adequate.

Moving beyond the mechanics

With knowledge and imagination, serving healthful food is easy to accomplish. Nutrition experts recommend we consume between 1,800–2,000 calories daily, depending on age, gender and activity level. Healthy cooking requires a basic knowledge of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and an understanding of their relationship to proper physical activity. Unfortunately, this technical approach to food preparation does not always translate from our kitchens to the menu. Chefs have found that a heart or carrot symbol affixed to a menu description sends an erroneous signal to the diner that the dish is bland and “different.” Often, however, we concentrate on the mechanics of a healthy dish while ignoring the importance of visual appeal and taste.

Flavor is a complex combination of taste, smell, sight and texture achieved through the use of contrasts and subtle visual cues that are essential to the overall enjoyment of food. Since “we eat with our eyes,” our visual sense is a key factor in developing healthy food options. Nature’s contribution is immeasurable, giving each food a specific color depending on its variety and density of nutrients. This color spectrum should be embraced by chefs as an unrealized tool in the quest for good health. Plants contain phytochemicals, which are active compounds thought to have beneficial health effects. The healing properties of plants have been recognized for millennia and many medicines have their origins in plants, roots, leaves and bark.

Plant pigments: more than just good looks

Vegetable and fruit pigments are grouped into categories based on color. These pigments are beneficial to the plant in many ways. They help the plants fight off diseases, their appetizing appearance encourages consumption, and the consequent seed distribution ensures propagation.

The richness of reds

Lycopene is a plant pigment that may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer and heart diseases. Found in tomatoes and watermelon, it is absorbed more efficiently when cooked. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that prevent cell damage and contribute to a healthy heart.  Although the science as to their true health benefits is still in its infancy, blueberries, raisins, grapes—and, therefore, red wine—have been shown to have beneficial effects on aging, inflammation, cancer and bacterial infections.

The red family of vegetables and fruits includes: beets, cherries, cranberries, red grapes, red peppers, pomegranates, radishes, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon, red apples and red cabbage.

Yellow and orange and oh-so-healthful

Carotenoids are plant pigments that are thought to be beneficial in fighting chronic diseases, as well as stabilizing high cholesterol and macular degeneration. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A when eating pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes and carrots.

Some of the produce in the yellow and orange family are: papaya, oranges, lemons, mangoes, carrots, cantaloupe, butternut squash, peaches, pineapple, apricots, yellow tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash and persimmons.

Going green

Chlorophyll is the pigment found in green vegetables and fruits. Many contain lutein, indole and folate, which are thought to protect against macular degeneration, cancer and birth defects.

Green vegetables and fruits include: zucchini, green grapes, spinach, cucumbers, green peppers, cabbage, peas, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kiwi, green beans, avocados and asparagus.

Cool customers: the purples and blues

Similar to anthocyanin in red vegetables, antioxidants in purple and blue fruits and vegetables protect against cell damage and may contribute to healthy aging and memory retention.

Examples of fruits and vegetables in the blue and purple category are: plums, raisins, blackberries, blueberries, purple grapes, eggplant and figs.

You may not think of it as a color

The white pigment anthoxanthin is thought to promote healthy blood pressure and “good” cholesterol. Potatoes and bananas also contain potassium, a mineral salt that regulates our pH, normalizes blood pressure and aids adrenal functions.

White fruits and vegetables include: mushrooms, onions, garlic, bananas, potatoes, cauliflower, turnips, parsnips, jicama and ginger.

Beyond produce: grains and legumes

In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes play an important part in this rainbow of nutrients, with colors ranging from bright orange to yellow, brown and green. Grains and legumes should make up at least half of our daily calories. Since refinement usually involves removing the nutritious bran from the grain, it is best to seek out those that have been minimally processed. Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates and take longer to digest, allowing for full absorption of all vital nutrients. With this longer digestion comes the feeling of fullness, lessening the craving for snacking between meals. Underutilized in the chefs’ arsenal of flavor and health are items like barley, bulgur, brown rice, and legumes such as lentils, dal and chickpeas. The Mediterranean diet, long known for its nurturing properties, is full of these colorful and delicious options, which have the extra benefit of lower food cost. Additionally, when legumes and grains are eaten together they form a complete protein, without the saturated fat and with the all-important fiber.

With our renewed interest in all things healthy, it is comforting to realize that a sensible, colorful approach to cooking can set the stage for a lifetime of smart eating. Our purveyors’ trucks are stacked with healthful foods, creating a palette of vibrant colors. Chefs have only to select the proper ingredients to fashion their own version of an artistic culinary masterpiece.

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