My grandmother had a dark purple velvet armchair when I was a young child that smelled like an exotic spice and was soft or prickly depending on how you stroked it. The chair fascinated me and I loved to sit in it, looking up at a mobile of Japanese umbrellas hanging from the ceiling above it or ringing a collection of small brass bells she kept on a shelf nearby. Sitting in that chair surrounded by beautiful and precious objects, I felt like royalty from a far away place. Its color has stayed with me, tucked away in its own regal corner of my mind.
With the exception of the “grow your own” movement, I have not been one to jump on food fad bandwagons. It may be to my detriment in the end, and certainly is a brand of laziness, but I just eat what I feel like eating most of the time, surrounding myself with whole foods so as to minimize the junk food snacking and maximize the home cooking. It seems to be working out so far.
But when a fad comes dressed in brilliant purple hues, I can’t help but take notice. Like a robe of velvet, the phytonutrient anthocyanin is responsible for staining fruits, vegetables and grains in shades of red, royal purple and blue. Anthocyanin-rich berries, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and corn can be so darkly pigmented they appear nearly black. Others like burgundy lettuces, cherries, raspberries, onions, and even citrus (think blood oranges) exhibit anthocyanin’s red spectrum.
In addition to being visual standouts in the produce aisle, anthocyanins have become a popular subject of recent health and nutrition research. Anecdotal evidence as well as in vitro and laboratory animal studies hint at an antioxidant wunderkind, with applications in memory loss prevention, cardiovascular disease and diabetes treatment, as well as in reducing some cancerous tumor growth.
From the plant’s perspective, anthocyanin functions in three main capacities. In photosynthetic tissues (leaves), anthocyanin pigments act as a kind of sunscreen, absorbing high spectrum light waves that could otherwise do harm to the energy-harvesting chlorophyll. Flowers utilize red and purple ornamentation to attract pollinators; anthocyanin pigmentation of fruit entice scavenging animals (and market shoppers) whose ingestion of the fruit helps disperse seeds.
What hampers researchers studying anthocyanins is a lack of understanding regarding how (and if) the phytonutrient is absorbed and how it functions within the body in its absorbed state. Even in the source plant’s tissue, it is unclear how effective the antioxidant properties of anthocyanin are in combating free radicals located in separate tissue structures.
Since a scientifically proven catalog of anthocyanin’s benefits is yet forthcoming, we are left only with its brilliant colors and the equally unsubstantiated connotations they stir in us. Coincidentally, color has also been found to play an integral role in enhancing memory performance, the two linked like the sea and salt air. Visible and invisible, sight and smell, color and memory: all move through the circuits of our minds creating moments that are both old and new. And so it is that I stand in my kitchen cutting a potato black as midnight, to find my grandmother’s chair (and its impossibly distant world) waiting inside.
Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.