For the better part of the last decade, brown foods have been taking the health industry by storm. “Whole grain” foods have become the gold standard in nutrition, although their true nutritional value could be debated. A new color craze is starting to emerge as research mounts, and the new color might just be more sexy than brown (despite being as basic as they come). Science is showing that black foods might be the next superfoods that are touted so highly for their beneficial makeup.
For years, nutritionists have been extolling the benefits of eating all the colors of the rainbow in your diet. This has typically referred to fruits and veggies and their many different vibrant colors - red apples, blueberries, orange citrus, purple eggplant, green leafy veggies, etc, etc. Science has shown that as is often the case in nature, bright colors carry more meaning than just being visually appealing. More often than not, a bright color means that an organism carries within it many compounds (whether that is a poison to ward off predators or an antioxidant). In produce, the bright colors are caused by skin pigments, which more often than not also happen to be powerful polyphenols or carotenoids, complete with numerous health benefits. While all the brightly colored pretty fruits and veggies have been admired for years, one color has been more or less neglected – black.
Black foods--just like other brightly colored foods--are packed with beneficial compounds. The black color is created by particularly powerful flavonoids called anthocyanins, which some studies suggest is the most powerful antioxidant. It has been shown to help improve vision, clear toxins from the body, reduce inflammation, protect against various forms of cancer, and help to battle cognitive decline (among other things).
Here are some black foods you can start integrating into your diet right away:
Beans – Black Beans, Black Lentils
I’ll group these two together since beans and lentils are so closely related. Both have ample amounts of fiber and are filled with other beneficial nutrients such as iron, folic acid, magnesium, zinc and potassium. According to the USDA’s antioxidant capacity ratings for foods, three of the top four highest scoring foods were beans, and research has shown that eating beans or lentils two or more times a week can reduce risk of cancer by as much as 25 percent! Considering their low glycemic rating, protein content, and the above benefits, you’d be foolish not to start eating more black beans and lentils. Many Mexican restaurants--such as Chipotle--offer black beans as an alternative, and they are relatively easy to find at the store too.
Black soybeans hold a special place in my heart since the Japanese culture believes that eating them at the start of the New Year brings good luck. Now I know why! They are somewhat sweet and grainy and taste fantastic, but even more importantly they have been shown to help prevent thrombosis, and are particularly high in alpha-linoleic acid like all soybeans. You probably won’t be able to find them in a regular grocery store, but many ethnic and health stores should carry them. They’ll be easy to find at any Ranch 99 or similar Asian specialty market.
Fruits – Plums, Cherries, Blackberries
These common dark-fleshed fruits are all oozing antioxidants. One study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition created a rating system for the antioxidant content of various foods using units called Trolox Equivalents (TEs). Plums scored the highest of any fruit, with a TE score of 2200. Blackberries were way out in front with a score of 5500! Combine the TE rating with the cholesterol-lowering pterostilbene content and eight grams of fiber per cup, and blackberries are right up there neck and neck with blueberries as a superfood. Cherries have also become a star in the research community, demonstrating remarkable abilities to fight inflammation, cancer and aging. All of these fruits should be easy to find in your local grocery store, even when they are out of season thanks to international trade.
A recent study showed that black rice actually has more anthocyanins than blueberries. While this doesn’t automatically put them ahead of blueberries as a health food, it certainly makes black rice better than its brown cousin that has gotten so much attention lately. Black rice may be somewhat difficult to find, but many varieties of wild rice blends contain black rice, and your local health food store probably has it in one of those bulk bins where you’ll find many types of fun grains.
While green tea has received most of the attention lately, black tea might have just as many health benefits. Black tea and green tea come from the same plant, with black tea being the most processed form (and darkest color) of all the tea variations – white, green, red/oolong, and black. Studies have shown that black tea might help to reduce the risk of having a heart attack, and they contain a compound called theaflavins, which researchers think may reduce muscle soreness and help with recovery after intense exercise. Black tea can be found in any store that carries any semblance of a good variety of teas.
As you can see, black foods are jam-packed with benefits. Many of these foods are simply black-colored varieties of other good foods. But the black coloring caused by the polyphenols in these ones, give them a little extra health punch that other foods lack.
Start looking for ways to use black alternatives in your diet, and maybe wearing black won’t be the only way to look slimmer!
Bowden, Jonny, Ph.D, C.N.S, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. Beverly, MA: Fairwinds Press, 2007
Margen, Sheldon, M.D., and the Editors of the UC Berkeley, Wellness Letter. Wellness Foods, A to Z: an indispensible guide for health-conscious food lovers. New York, NY: Rebus, Inc. Health Letter Associates, 2002
Matlack, Jennifer. "Black Superfoods: Black Is The New Green." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/20/6-surprisingly-black-supe_n_837656.html>.
Nuwanee Kirihennedige – Is a nutritionist and dietician that works with athletes and health minded individuals on sports performance and weight loss. Nuwanee currently is the nutritionist for the California Strength Academy in San Ramon California. Nuwanee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.