Vivid veggies, flashy fruits

May 4, 2011 

The more colors of produce you eat the more benefits you get, nutritionists say magine a world where watermelons are yellow, asparagus is purple, oranges are red, cauliflower is orange and raspberries are gold.

It’s not a fantasy. There’s hardly a fruit or vegetable out there that comes in just one color. But you’d hardly know it by strolling through your neighborhood market.

Consumers and home gardeners know they don’t have to settle for red apples and white onions. But they’re just starting to realize that they have access to scarlet lettuce, purple bush beans and yellow strawberries.

But is all this just a novelty to amuse children and confuse Great-Grandma? Hardly. Many seldom-seen versions of common produce contain more healthful nutrients than their flag-carrying brethren. Some have superior flavors.

Most of these weird-looking produce aren’t Frankenfruit. They are often parent varieties (sometimes called heirlooms) of common produce. As America moved from home gardens and local markets to industrial farming in the 20th century, produce growers needed products that could withstand disease, mechanical harvesting, shipping in trucks, have long shelf lives and, perhaps most importantly, be visually appealing to consumers.

Through hybridization (the process of selective breeding to encourage desired genetic traits) produce with those qualities was developed. Their parents and cousins were left on the farm while the kids were sent to the big city. Fortunately, many of those Old World varieties have been preserved and are making a comeback.

Many nutritionists recommend eating a “rainbow” of produce – and the more color the better. Those colors are more than just window dressing – they are phytochemicals and powerful antioxidants. Red pigmentation comes from lycopenes and anthocyanins, orange and yellow are carotenoids, purple and blue have anthocyanins, green contains chlorophyll and white produce has anthoxanthins.

Numerous health claims, including cancer and cardiovascular health protection, have been made regarding phytochemicals. The jury is still out, but health authorities such as the Mayo Clinic recommend a diet high in food with these substances.

At the Olympia Food Co-op, produce manager and local farm coordinator Eric Miller stocks white and black radishes, red and purple carrots, orange and purple cauliflower and a variety of other alternatively colored as well as standard organic produce.

“We have so many things that people are surprised that we are carrying because they are not traditional items,” Miller said. He points out that orange cauliflower contains beta carotene – the same phytochemical that turns carrots orange. Other items just look, well, cool.

“A lot of those things, like rainbow carrots, when they are sliced and put on salads look amazing,” Miller said.

At Marlene’s Market and Deli in Tacoma, produce manager Joe McInnis stocks his shelves with red chard, blood oranges and purple potatoes to name just a few.

“The flavor is amazing. Biting into one of these reminds you why we grow these things,” McInnis said of heirloom fruits and vegetables.

Black radishes are popular with eastern Europeans, McInnis said, who grate them into a salad with Granny Smith apples. He notes that the radishes have anti-bacterial properties. The radishes are quite possibly the ugliest vegetable you’ll ever see, looking like they were just pulled out of a day old camp fire. But slice off the skin and you’ll be rewarded with firm, white and mild flesh.

Seldom seen in markets are golden raspberries which range from yellow to a pinkish-orange. They’re sweeter than their red cousins and arguably better tasting. “They are so high in sugar they start turning into jam by the end of the day,” explained McInnis who has only one reliable producer in the entire Pacific Northwest. Home gardeners, however, can grow all they want.

Another favorite of McInnis’s are blood oranges. Smaller and not as sweet as standard varieties, the oranges have a flesh so dark it’s practically the color of red wine. McInnis notes that they are the only citrus fruit that contains anthocyanin – the red-pigmented phytochemical.

McInnis is also a fan of purple potatoes. Not only do they contain anthocyanin but he says they taste better. Plus, they have less starch and hold up better in soup.

McInnis keeps an eye out for brightly colored produce. “That’s a really good indication of the health benefits. You mix your colors and you mix your antioxidants.”

Lakewood residents Diane Downie and Paul Shelley are not only mixing their antioxidants they are growing them. The couple has turned their one-third-acre lot into a mini-farm with 50 raised beds. They produce so much that they sell plant starts to Marlene’s and give away about 400 pounds of produce each year to food banks, friends and neighbors. Or anyone who stops by to weed, Downie notes.

“Mainly, we get too excited and grow too much,” she said.

This year the couple plans to grow 60 different varieties of tomatoes – up from 53 last year. In years past they have produced about 1,000 pounds of fresh tomatoes. While many of those tomatoes are red they also grow yellow, orange, black, purple and green varieties.

Shelley calls black tomatoes, “Tasty ... It’s a unique flavor but one that I particularly like.” The couple list some of their favorite nonred varieties: Evergreen, Black Prince, Cherokee Purple, and Sun Gold.

The Lakewood couple are bullish on lemon cucumbers – a round yellow variety that they say is harder to grow but matures later and are mildly flavored.

Herbs can also get in on the multicolored revolution. Downie and Shelley grow purple basil. “It’s really pretty but it’s not as good” in flavor as other varieties, says Downie. She adds that it lends a visual punch to the garden as well as in salads.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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