When I think of foods that have “super” health-promoting properties, berries are on my list of top ten favorites. Not only are they delicious, but bilberries, black currants, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, elderberries, raspberries, strawberries—in fact, every berry you can think of—offer an enormous range of health benefits. What all of these berries have in common are anthocyanins—the pigments that give them their rich deep red and purple coloring. Although berries are perhaps the best-known sources of anthocyanins, other foods with the same colorants—for example, beets, cherries, eggplant, plums, pomegranates, purple cabbage, purple grapes, and red onions—also contain these valuable compounds. Grape seed extract, an especially rich source of anthocyanins, is the most widely researched anthocyanin supplement. Another excellent anthocyanin source—and one of my favorites—is a blend of fruit anthocyanins, which contains red grape, elderberry, blueberry, aronia berry, pomegranate, and red raspberry.
Anthocyanins, the largest water-soluble pigments in the plant kingdom, are a type of flavonoid, a phytonutrient found exclusively in plants. Plants with these colorful pigments have long been valued in herbal medicine for their numerous health benefits. For example, cranberries have been used for treating urinary tract infections, elderberries for combatting colds and flu, and hawthorn for lowering blood pressure. Modern science is affirming that anthocyanins are a medicine chest in a vibrant package—foods and herbs with these particular hues have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties. Research indicates that purple and red fruits, vegetables, and herbs—as well as supplements of concentrated anthocyanins—may help to protect against cancer, cognitive decline, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
How Anthocyanins Protect Health
Hundreds of studies support the use of anthocyanins, both dietary sources and as supplements, for improving health and warding off disease. Anthocyanins have a wide range of biological activities including: redox/antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-carcinogenic, fostering eye health, neuroprotective, prevention of LDL oxidation, improvement of capillary stability, supporting collagen, and increasing intercellular levels of vitamin C.1
The following are some current findings:
A recent study examined the association between the intake of vegetables, fruits and berries (together and separately) and the risk of all-cause mortality and cause-specific mortality due to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Researchers found that men who consumed vegetables, fruit and berries more than 27 times per month had an 8-10 % reduced risk of all-cause mortality compared with men with a lower consumption, including a 20% reduced risk of stroke mortality; in addition, fruit consumption was inversely related to overall cancer mortality. The researchers concluded that consumption of vegetables, fruits and berries was associated with a delayed risk of all-cause mortality and of mortality due to cancer and stroke.2 Additional research shows that anthocyanins inhibit nuclear factor-kB activation, thus reducing the pro-inflammatory mediators that are linked to the initiation of degenerative diseases.3
Enhance Heart Health
In 2010, a report in Nutrition Reviews evaluated studies on anthocyanins, and concluded that berries (either fresh, juiced, or freeze-dried) and purified anthocyanin extracts convey significant improvements in cardiovascular risk factors including LDL oxidation, lipid peroxidation, total plasma antioxidant capacity, dyslipidemia, and glucose metabolism.
According to the report, both healthy subjects and people with existing metabolic risk factors benefited from anthocyanins. Among other favorable actions, anthocyanins increase endothelial nitric oxide formation, decrease oxidative stress, and inhibit inflammation.4 In 2011, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that anthocyanins also help to normalize blood pressure. Anthocyanins appear to help mitigate the effects of angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), which causes arteries to constrict and raises blood pressure.In a subsequent study reported in 2012, researchers found that a higher intake of anthocyanins and flavones are inversely associated with less arterial stiffness, central blood pressure, and atherosclerosis.6
The evidence continues to mount for the benefits of anthocyanins and other flavonoid compounds. A 2013 review and analysis of studies reported that dietary intake of six classes of flavonoids, namely flavonols, anthocyanidins, proanthocyanidins, flavones, flavanones and flavan-3-ols, significantly decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease.7
Defend Against Cancer
Promising research indicates that anthocyanins may help to protect against several forms of cancer. According to a laboratory study published in 2010 in Phytotherapy Research, anthocyanins extracted from blueberries were shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.8
In a 2010 study reported in Pharmacological Research, researchers at Ohio State University found that a variety of berries prevented esophageal cancer in rats exposed to a carcinogenic compound. The rats were fed a diet made up of 5% berries; although each of the different groups consumed a different type of berry, all types of berries were deemed equally effective at inhibiting tumor initiation and development.9
Anthocyanins counteract the imbalance of oxidative and antioxidative factors, thus protecting health. Black currant (Ribes nigrum) contains high amounts of anthocyanins, with significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Research indicates that black currant juice could be of value in preventing and treating oxidative stress- and inflammation-driven cancers; a recent study demonstrated that black currant skin containing an anthocyanin-rich fraction inhibits the proliferation of liver cancer cells.10
Protect Against Diabetes
Studies suggest that anthocyanins may lower blood glucose by improving insulin resistance, protecting β-cells, increasing secretion of insulin, and reducing digestion of sugars in the small intestine.In a long-term review reported in 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers collected diet and lifestyle information from more than 200,000 adult men and women beginning in 1980 and continuing through 2003. After analyzing the data, the researchers determined that people who consumed the most anthocyanins were 15% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and those who ate the most blueberries were 23% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.11A recent trial demonstrated that anthocyanin supplementation exerts beneficial metabolic effects in subjects with type 2 diabetes by improving dyslipidemia, enhancing antioxidant capacity, and preventing insulin
resistance.12 In another study, anthocyanin-rich foods were associated with lower insulin and inflammation levels in woman ages 18-76.13 Another study shows that anthocyanins may help to reduce obesity.14
Support Neurological Health and Response
In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers found that blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. Adults with early memory changes who were given wild blueberry juice for 12 weeks were found to have improved memory skills, as well as lower glucose levels and reduced depressive symptoms. Along with the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of blueberry anthocyanins, the researchers noted that, “anthocyanins have been associated with increased neuronal signaling in brain centers, mediating memory function as well as improved glucose disposal, benefits that would be expected to mitigate neurodegeneration.”15
A 2012 study reported in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias found that eating more berries reduces cognitive decline in the elderly. In the study, researchers determined that blueberries and strawberries seem to offer the greatest benefits for protecting brain function.16
Ward Off Colds And Flu
Elderberries have long been used in herbal medicine to fight colds and influenza. In a 2009 laboratory study reported in Phytochemistry, elderberry anthocyanins were found to bind to H1N1 swine flu virus, blocking its ability to infect host cells. The researchers noted the elderberry anthocyanins acted in a way similar to that of the pharmaceutical drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu).17These are just a few of the recent findings of the numerous health benefits of anthocyanins. Because of their wide ranging protective properties, I recommend including anthocyanin-rich foods in your daily diet, as well as concentrated supplements of anthocyanins. One of my favorite ways of enjoying the benefits of anthocyanins is with a fruit smoothie that incorporates frozen or fresh berries, pomegranate juice, and concentrated fruit anthocyanins. The following recipe makes a delicious breakfast or snack:
- 1 cup frozen mixed berries
- ½ ripe banana
- 1 cup plain whole milk yogurt
- ¼ cup pomegranate juice
- 1 teaspoon powdered fruit anthocyanins
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup, optional
- 1 scoop undenatured whey powder
Combine all ingredients together in a blender except whey powder and blend on high speed until smooth. Add whey powder and mix on low speed just until blended. Serve immediately.
- Mazza, G. Anthocyanins and Heart Health. Berry Health Berry Symposium. Corvallis, OR. June 2007.
- Hjartåker A, Knudsen M, et al. Consumption of berries, fruits and vegetables and mortality among 10,000 Norwegian men followed for four decades; Journal of Nutrition, Aug 2014.
- Karlsen A1, Retterstøl L, et al. Anthocyanins inhibit nuclear factor-kappaB activation in monocytes and reduce plasma concentrations of pro-inflammatory mediators in healthy adults, J Nutr. 2007 Aug;137(8):1951-4.
- Basu A, Rhone M, et al. Berries: emerging impact on cardiovascular health. Nutr Rev. 2010 Mar;68(3):168-77.
- Cassidy A, O’Reilly ÉJ, et al. Habitual intake of flavonoid subclasses and incident hypertension in adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb;93(2):338-47.
- Jennings A1, Welch AA, et al. Higher anthocyanin intake is associated with lower arterial stiffness and central blood pressure in women, Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Oct;96(4):781-8. Epub 2012 Aug 22.
- Wang X, Ouyang YY, Liu J, Zhao G. Flavonoid intake and risk of CVD: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies, Br J Nutr. 2014 Jan 14;111(1):1-11. doi: 10.1017/S000711451300278X. Epub 2013 Aug 16.
- Faria A, Pestana D, et al. Blueberry anthocyanins and pyruvic acid adducts: anticancer properties in breast cancer cell lines. Phytother Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):1862-9. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3213.
- Stoner GD, Wang LS, et al. Multiple berry types prevent N-nitrosomethylbenzylamine-induced esophageal cancer in rats. Pharm Res. 2010 Jun;27(6):1138-45.
- Bishayee A , Háznagy-Radnai E, et al. Anthocyanin-rich black currant extract suppresses the growth of human hepatocellular carcinoma cells. Nat Prod Commun. 2010 Oct;5(10):1613-8.
- Jacques PF, Cassidy A, et al. Higher Dietary Flavonol Intake Is Associated with Lower Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes1,2 J Nutr. Sep 2013; 143(9): 1474–1480.
- Dan Li, Yuhua Zhang, et al. Purified Anthocyanin Supplementation Reduces Dyslipidemia, Enhances Antioxidant Capacity, and Prevents Insulin Resistance in Diabetic Patients, The Journal of Nutrition. First published ahead of print February 4, 2015 as doi: 10.3945/jn.114.205674
- Jennings A1, Welch AA, et al. Intakes of anthocyanins and flavones are associated with biomarkers of insulin resistance and inflammation in women, J Nutr. 2014 Feb;144(2):202-8. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.184358. Epub 2013 Dec 11.
- Krikorian R, Shidler M, et al. Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. Agric Food Chem. 2010 Apr 14;58(7):3996-4000.
- Persson IA, Persson K, et al. Effect of Vaccinum myrtillus and its polyphenols on angiotensin-converting enzyme activity in human endothelial cells. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Jun 10;57(11):4626-9.
- Eating more berries may reduce cognitive decline in the elderly: flavonoid-rich blueberries and strawberries offer most benefit. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 2012 Aug;27(5):358.
- Roschek B Jr, Fink RC, McMichael MD, Li D, Alberte RS. Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 2009 Jul;70(10):1255-61.