What are the Red Phytonutrients?

Phytonutrients are the 100,000+ chemicals in plants that ward off disease, pests, radiation from the sun, and other hazards. Many phytonutrients are antioxidants, and in people have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects, among other benefits.

Phytonutrients are often pigments, and red phytonutrients include anthocyanins, ellagic acid and lycopene. Here’s a chart that shows which red phytonutrients are in which foods, and what their associated benefits are:

Red-pigmented PhytonutrientFoods With Highest LevelsAssociated Benefits
Anthocyanins*Blood oranges, cherries, cranberries, red apples (skin), red beans, red beets, red cabbage, red or purple grapes and juice, red onions, red pears (skin), red wines, strawberries.Supports cardiovascular and visual health; anti-diabetic; anti-obesity; anti-microbial.
Ellagic acidCranberries, pomegranate, raspberries, strawberries, red grapes.Anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, anti-obesity.
LycopeneStrawberries, cranberries, raspberries, tomatoes (levels are highest when cooked), cherries, apples, beets, watermelon, red grapes, red peppers, red onions, watermelon.Protects against prostate cancer and heart and lung diseases.

*Anthocyanins appear red in acidic conditions and blue in alkaline solution. 

These three phytonutrients, while similar in color, come from different places in the phytonutrient family tree; which means they have different chemical structures.

Anthycyanins are a flavonoid, as are flavonols, flavones, flavanones, flavanols and isoflavones (you don’t need to know any of this; I’m just showing off).

Ellagic acid is a phenolic acid in the benzoic group, along with vanillic and gallic acids.

Lycopene is a carotenoid, as is beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin (which are all part of the terpenoid family).

What this tells you is that these phytonutrients can benefit you in different ways. So if you’re trying to eat the rainbow, and choose, say, raspberries on a given day to hit on your reds, then try to have strawberries, or any different red food, the next day or week, to multiply your nutritional benefits over time.

By the way, not all plants that contain these red-pigmented phytonutrients are red. For example, walnuts and pecans have significant levels of ellagic acid, but don’t appear red. Eating by color is a good guideline, but it isn’t the only way to get each phytonutrient. As always, eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is best.

As you can see. many foods have more than one phytonutrient. For example, strawberries have all three red-giving phytonutrients. Eating just a few fruits and vegetables every day can give you a huge range of nutritional benefits.

Get a complete list of antioxidants in my article here.

Tips for getting more fruits and vegetables into your diet

The most recent US Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. That’s 8 1/2 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Here are some ways to max up your nutrition with minimal effort:

  • Remember that a serving isn’t very big. One serving is one small piece of fruit like an apple, banana or orange. It s also 1/2 cup chopped fruit or veggie, or 1 cup of leafy greens. You can do this!
  • Choose “super foods” with multiple benefits. For example, blueberries and strawberries contain multiple phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
  • As soon as you bring fresh produce home from the store, wash and cut it (if necessary). Put the prepped fruit and veggies in see-through glass containers in your fridge. They will look pretty and easy to grab, every time you open the fridge door.
  • Every day, make one meal, or part of one meal, a salad. Onto that salad put as much variety as you can, so you’re getting multiple servings in one dish.
  • Remember the number 2: have 2 servings at each meal, and then you will only need 1 1/2 more serving at snack time to get your daily allotment. Don’t save up all your servings for dinner.

Tips for getting RED fruits and vegetables into your diet

  • Sprinkle a variety of berries on your cereal or oatmeal every morning, or have them on the side of whatever you are having. Or include them in your smoothie. Breakfast = berries (remember: b=b).
  • Always have a red cabbage in the fridge. You can chop some into every salad for a healthy and delicious crunch.
  • Buy organic apples and pears so that you can eat their red skins, where the majority of the phytonutrients are. These are EWG “dirty dozen” foods, meaning they tend to retain high amounts of pesticides in their skins.
  • When choosing between red and green grapes, choose red. When choosing between red and white onion, choose red. When choosing between red and white wine…..you get the idea. In general, the more richly-colored the food, the richer in phytonutrients it is going to be.
  • It’s insanely easy to make your own tomato sauce for pasta, and soooooo much tastier than store-bought. And I’m talking using canned tomatoes. Tomatoes are one of the foods that don’t suffer from being in a can (but please ensure your cans or packets are BPA-free). Just dump two big cans of canned tomatoes in a pot and simmer, breaking up any large chunks with a spoon. You can doctor it all you like from there, with olive oil, garlic, herbs and spices. It keeps in the fridge for 3 days. Keep some handy always, and you’ll find many uses for it.

Hope this answers your questions about red phytonutrients!

Read about the yellow/orange phytonutrients here.

Read about the purple/blue phytonutrients here.

Read about when it’s safe—or not—to eat the skin on fresh produce here.


Vicki Spellman

Vicki Spellman is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA) and Senior VP at a large healthcare communications firm.

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