By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Throughout history, the color purple has been a symbol of royalty. It seems the dye was hard to make in ancient times so only the wealthy could afford it. When it comes to food, you might say that purple has become the king of all colors.
Overall, color is a good cue for nutrient density. The darker the better. Deeply-hued produce typically have more health-promoting phytonutrients than their paler counterparts. (Although a recent report wisely reminds us not to dismiss white vegetables.) The dark pigments responsible for the purplish tones in fruits and vegetables are called anthocyanins, a type of phytonutrient that has gained attention from scientists worldwide.
Studies have shown that anthocyanin-rich purple foods may have the potential to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. One USDA-funded study found that a couple of servings of purple potatoes a day helped lower blood pressure in obese and hypertensive adults. Other studies suggest anthocyanins may play a role in reducing the risk of certain cancers, diabetes and dementia.
These are the same compounds that put blueberries on the map as a super food. Most people are familiar with some purple fruits and vegetables, such as grapes, plums, red onions, eggplants and purple cabbage. But expect to see a lot more purple coming to a produce aisle near you. In fact, Frieda’s Specialty Produce has declared 2013 as The Year of Purple. Now you can find a growing array of heirloom and specialty vegetables with a distinctive purple hue: purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, asparagus, artichokes, carrots, corn, tomatoes, peppers, wax beans, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kale.
Chefs are also experimenting with purple vegetables. Purple cauliflower and heirloom purple tomatoes are especially popular on menus.
Despite the hot trend and the disease-fighting potential of the color purple, an analysis by the Produce for Better Health Foundation found that only 3 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. are from the purple or blue category. Perhaps that will change once these purple vegetables gain greater space in grocery produce aisles.
Part of the problem may also be the perceived bitterness of these deeply-hued vegetables. Jo Robinson, author of an upcoming book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, says modern-day vegetables have been bred to enhance the palatability of the produce and that has often meant getting rid of the purple. Yet, now we know that the same compounds that provide the bitter, sour or tart notes are also among the most nutritious.
I was fortunate to get a shipment of some purple vegetables sent to me by Frieda’s, so I was able to experiment in my own kitchen. I especially liked the Stokes Purple Sweet Potato, which is an intensely deep purple sweet potato named after a grower in Stokes County, North Carolina. Look for purple produce in your local supermarket or specialty market. Or you may discover them at a nearby farmer’s market. Here are some ways you can get your purple on:
- Make coleslaw with shredded purple cabbage, purple carrots and purple kohlrabi.
- Use purple potatoes instead of russet when making potato salad, or combine with red-skinned new potatoes and roast in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh herbs.
- Slice purple grapes and add to chicken salad or a tossed green salad.
- Add purple carrots and purple kale to salads and stir-fries.
- Toss a plum in your bag for an afternoon snack.
- Drink a glass of grape juice at breakfast or for an afternoon snack.
- Make a chunky salsa with purple corn, purple tomatoes and purple onions.
- Bake a whole purple sweet potato and top with a teaspoon of butter and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
- Add a side of steamed purple asparagus or roasted cauliflower at dinner.
- Sprinkle blueberries or blackberries on your morning cereal or oatmeal.
- Puree a baked purple sweet potato and add to muffins, quick breads, pancakes and waffles.
- Steam baby purple artichokes and then cut in half and roast in the oven or finish on the grill.