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Is Black the New Black in Foods?

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

Black Rice

In the fashion world, the little black dress is a timeless classic. Now it appears that “eating black” is also in vogue.

Black-colored foods are a growing trend, and in many cases, these ebony foods have a health advantage too. The black food fervor is red hot in Asia, particularly Japan, where you can sip on black soybean tea and black vinegar drinks, which are promoted as tonics to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

We have China to thank for black rice, which is referred to as “forbidden rice” because it was once reserved only for royalty. Increasingly you’ll see chefs featuring black rice on restaurant menus and you can buy in Asian markets and some natural food stores. Black sesame seeds, also popular in Asian cultures, are now showing up in crackers, cereal and even ice cream.

In Europe, there’s a trend called ‘dirty dining’ where people get together and eat only black foods. A dirty dining collective in Milan is known to serve feasts featuring eggs boiled in black tea and dipped in sesame seeds, according to the U.K’s The Future Laboratory. The idea, according to the collective’s founder, is to challenge preconceptions that black food is unattractive and inappropriate.

Often foods are black — or deeply hued – because of natural plant pigments called anthocyanins. Derived from the Greek words for “plant” and “blue,” anthocyanins are what make blueberries blue, cherries red, and blackberries black – or almost black. Typically the darker the color, the more anthocyanins are inside (and you can’t get much darker than black!)

Studies suggest that anthocyanins have anti-inflammatory properties and may offer protection against heart disease and cancer. Monica Giusti, assistant professor of food science at Ohio State University, found that black carrots slowed the growth of cancer cells by up to 80 percent, and black raspberries helped reduce the growth of esophageal and colon cancer tumors.

Not all black foods are rich in anthocyanins. Black pasta, for instance, is typically made from squid ink, and you can buy black crackers that contain an edible charcoal powder that provides the dark hue. Black garlic, another popular trend, turns dark due to fermentation – which also concentrates the health-enhancing compounds in the cloves. Most varieties of black salt are Hawaiian lava salt.

If you’re new to black foods, here are some to try:

Black sesame seeds: More flavorful and richer in nutrients than their white counterparts, black sesame seeds make an ideal coating on salmon and other fish.

Black beans: These dark, dense beans contain more antioxidants (including anthocyanins) than any other bean. No surprise, white beans contain the least amount. Also look for black lentils and black chickpeas. Add to chili, soups, and salads.

Black rice: This whole-grain rice contains more fiber and nutrients compared to white rice. Some varieties look purple when cooked.

Black quinoa: This ancient grain of the Andes has become a huge trend, but most varieties you can find are white. Check out nutty-flavored black quinoa, which is darkened by anthocyanins. Once cooked, it loses some of its dramatic dark color, but you’ll still reap the nutrition benefits.

Black soybeans: High in protein, fiber and anthocyanins, black soybeans may be better at lowering cholesterol levels than yellow soybeans, according to Japanese researchers.

Black vinegar: Available in Asian markets, this dark vinegar is typically made from brown rice. Similar to balsamic, but the aging gives it a woodsy and smoky flavor.

Blackberries: These deeply hued berries are higher in antioxidants than any other fruit.

Black olives: Packed with “good” fats and vitamin E, naturally black olives get their color from anthocyanins. Add pitted black olives to salads, couscous and pasta, or grind to make a tapenade.

Nigella seeds: Staples in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, these tiny jet-black seeds have a nutty, peppery flavor. Also called black onion seeds, they’re used as a seasoning for vegetables, beans, and bread (including naan).

Black mushrooms: Aromatic and rich in flavor, black mushrooms include shiitake, wood ear, and black trumpet. Dried versions are easily found in Asian markets.

Have you tried any black foods lately? Discuss your favorites in the comments below or in our Food and Cooking community.

Photo: iStockphoto

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