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Why eating foods of different colors can help you maintain a healthy diet

My column this week is about flavonoids. This topic is the result of answering questions about flavonoids and the suggestion from those questions to write about them. One of the many bonuses to working as a Purdue Extension Educator in Health and Human Sciences is that I am always learning. When it comes to eating healthy, I know we all hear a lot about flavonoids and antioxidants. 

What are flavonoids? They are a large family of over 5,000 polyphenolic compounds that carry out important functions in plants, including attracting pollinating insects, combating environmental stresses such as microbial infection and regulating cell growth.

How do they work in humans? Their biological activities in humans appear to be strongly influenced by their chemical nature. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing interest in dietary flavonoids due to their likely contribution to the health benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids have a role in health promotion and disease prevention. There are 12 major subclasses based on their chemical structures, six of which (anthocyanins, flavan-3-ols, flavones, flavanones, and isoflavones) are of dietary significance.

Common food sources that supply the anthocyanidins are foods of color like fruits. I will begin with berries that are red, blue, and purple; red and purple grapes and red wine. You will get flavones from celery, hot peppers, parsley and thyme. The flavanones are found in all of the citrus fruits and juices such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes. The flavonols are in both vegetables and fruits like broccoli, onions, kale, scallions, apples and tea. The flavan-3-ols are in white, green, and oolong teas; cocoa based products, red and purple grapes, and in berries, apples and red wine. When you consume soy foods, soybeans, and dried beans, you are receiving your isoflavones.

So from reading this you know that fruits and vegetables are the main dietary sources of flavonoids for humans, along with tea and wine. However, there is still difficulty in accurately measuring the daily intake of flavonoids. This is due to the complexity of the existence of flavonoids from various food sources, the diversity of dietary culture, and the occurrence of a large amount of flavonoids itself in nature. What you need to remember is that research on the health aspects of flavonoids for humans is expanding rapidly. More importantly is that flavonoids are shown to have antioxidative activity, free-radical scavenging capacity, coronary heart disease prevention, and anticancer activity, while some flavonoids exhibit potential for anti-human immunodeficiency virus functions. 

So what do all these long words and chemistry mean when it comes to you and your family’s eating and meal planning? The body’s need for flavonoids reinforces the fact that you need to eat a variety of foods all the time and especially when it comes to vegetables and fruits. Here is a new idea on making a healthier apple slaw. Chop one apple, leaving the peel on, and toss with lemon juice. Add two cups of shredded cabbage, 1/4 cup chopped onion and one chopped, red, orange or yellow pepper. Toss all of the ingredients together. Mix 6 to 8 ounces of plain, vanilla or fruit flavored yogurt with 2 tablespoons of orange juice or orange juice concrete and pour over the apple cabbage mixture and stir. An option is to sprinkle with a dash of cinnamon. Store in the refrigerator, best if used in 3 to 4 days.

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