In produce sections, the sizzle that sells is freshness. Natural foods consumers want rich, deep colors, engaging aromas and the feeling that their fruits and vegetables have come straight from a farmer's garden. But the produce section's diverse palette is much more than just an aesthetic crowd-pleaser. Researchers have linked the natural pigments found in many plant-based foods to powerful, cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
Many deeply pigmented plants contain phytochemicals with important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Phytochemicals such as chlorophyll, carotenoids and bioflavonoids are made naturally by plants and are responsible for each fruit and vegetable's distinctive taste, aroma and color. Throughout history, these phytochemicals have provided humans and other animals with various health benefits. But recently, researchers have been able to more accurately explain their benefits.
This is great news for both nutritionists and retailers promoting healthy plant-based diets. Not only do produce proponents have hard evidence to explain how plant-based foods help fight cancer, they also have a method for directing consumers to the best, healthiest produce in a retail store. Produce manufacturers and vendors, armed with science to support fruit and vegetable consumption, also have new marketing options.
"[Phytochemicals] found in plants are there naturally to help the plant, to protect it from disease, from the sun, from environmental situations," says Barbara Gollmann, a Dallas-based registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
But Gollmann explains that some phytochemicals are actually colors or pigments with health benefits for people. Lutein, which gives leafy vegetables such as spinach, romaine lettuce and collard greens their distinct green color, has been shown to help protect against age-related macular degeneration. Anthocyanins, found in European bilberries and blueberries and directly responsible for these fruits' rich colors, have been shown to help correct vision disorders and to help prevent cataracts and glaucoma. And lycopene, the red-pigmented phytochemical predominant in tomatoes, protects against heart disease and some cancers.
"You want to find the most brightly colored fruits and vegetables," Gollmann says. "[A] deeper green lettuce will have more nutrients."
Diana Dyer, M.S., R.D., of Ann Arbor, Mich., author of A Dietitian's Cancer Story (Swan Press, 1999), agrees with Gollmann. "You want deeper, darker colors to get more bang for your buck," she says. "Not just in monetary terms, but why am I putting this in my mouth." Dyer says romaine lettuce and spinach are richer in phytochemicals than iceberg lettuce, and red grapes are a healthier choice than green grapes. "The phytochemicals that give plants the deep, dark colors have the [best] anticancer activities," Dyer says. "The variety of different colors is really important to maximize [cancer protection]."
However, choosing food by color is not a guaranteed path to the most phytochemical-rich produce. Garlic, yellow onions and grains may be dull in color, but are nonetheless rich in phytochemicals. Choosing produce by color "is a good recommendation, but it is not a whole answer," Gollmann says.
Chris Rosenbloom, spokeswoman for the ADA and chair of the Nutrition Department at Georgia State University in Atlanta, agrees. "It's a broad brush way," Rosenbloom says. While the pigmentation method may work with many fruits and vegetables, there are always exceptions. "Nutrition is a science in its infancy," Rosenbloom says. "The more we learn, the more we'll suggest [to consumers]. Nutrition is more complex than [choosing by color]."
While nutrition may be a complex science, consumer responses can be fairly simple. "Get some variety [in your diet]," Rosenbloom says. As long as consumers eat a diverse, plant-based diet, they are sure to get the benefits of phytochemicals.
"Goal No. 1 is a minimum of five [fruits and vegetables] a day," Dyer says. "I eat nine to 14 on a daily basis. [But] most consumers are really down at two to three."
Dyer's recommendation of five servings of produce a day powers such programs as the Produce for Better Health Foundation's "5 A Day" campaign. According to the PBH, the campaign is a mission to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to an average of five or more daily servings to improve the health of Americans.
"We've known for a long time that eating fruits and vegetables helps health," says Christine Filardo, PBH's nutrition communications manager in Wilmington, Del. "This [new research] may help us understand those mechanisms." And in a nation where, according to Rosenbloom, the two most commonly purchased vegetables are iceberg lettuce and french fries, successful marketing campaigns are of utmost importance.
Filardo says phytochemical research will have a long-lasting effect on consumers. "I've heard it said that phytochemicals will be bigger than vitamins. They're the new frontier in nutrition."
Filardo believes the connection between healthful phytochemicals and pigmentation will support the notion that eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is important. "If you can talk to your customers about the health benefits of the produce then it becomes a very powerful marketing tool," Filardo says.
ADA's Rosenbloom agrees. "[I'd like to] see [retailers] use the grocery store to help consumers," she says. "Not only to educate them about phytochemicals but also to show them how to use the produce."
Educating consumers is of utmost importance to produce distributors such as Frieda's, based in Los Alamitos, Calif. "A lot of our signage speaks to different vitamins and minerals that are in the fruits and vegetables," says Tristan Millar, director of marketing. "It's important to stay abreast of what the studies are [and] it's very important to inform consumers about their options."
Consumers interested in nutritional issues will look at the produce section in a new way, says Millar. That person may become his or her own nutritionist. "Produce for a Better Health Foundation has some excellent signage," says Millar. "They have a whole brochure just on phytochemicals. It tells you exactly what benefits there are."
No matter how you look at the produce section, the proof is in the pigments. While there are exceptions to this method—and there are always exceptions—consumers may be able to choose fruits and vegetables richer in phytochemicals simply from the color of the produce. The self-empowerment provided by the ease of choosing healthy food by color may well confirm Filardo's belief that phytochemicals are nutrition's new frontier.
Vishal Khanna is a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 1/p. 24, 30
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 1/p. 30