In the Red
Most people treat raw onions with caution, but on this occasion, without hesitation, several people round me picked up an onion and ate it like an apple.
Now, I’m not a raw onion fan, so while I couldn’t possibly have joined in, I couldn’t help but be impressed by research results supporting the value of onions in our diet that prompted that response.
We were part of a worldwide delegation including a few participants from Australia and NZ, who travelled firstly to Atlanta, Georgia, staying on campus at the charming Georgia University and then on to College Station Texas (George Bush stamping ground) to visit Texas A & M University, to meet and talk with scientists and horticulturalists about the lifesaving antioxidant qualities found in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Anyone remotely interested in good health today, will be aware of the need of antioxidants in our diet. Basically, we need them to keep us healthy because they reduce or repair the damage caused by the oxidative effect of ‘free radicals’ in our bodies. Along with pollution, stress and unhealthy food and drink, unwelcomed ‘free radicals’ are produced by the oxygen that runs our body processes and leads to cell damage and chronic diseases, like cancer, heart conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts and Alzheimer’s.
The most common antioxidants in fruit and vegetables are Vitamin C, Vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids as well as phytochemicals (natural plant compounds) and other compounds, associated with particular colours.
Along with onions, our programme looked at fresh ‘red’ fruit and vegetables.
The early sessions, involved presentations from scientists, growers, breeders and merchants who confirmed that onions are loaded with a huge number of compounds including quercetin and sulphur based compounds, plus anthocyanins found in red varieties, that give us significant health benefits.
Various studies confirmed the ability of the flavonoid quercetin, an antioxidant found in red and yellow onions, to prevent cancer; anthocyanins - (pronounced an-tho-SIGH-uh-nins, responsible for the red colour - a group of phytochemicals (pronounced FIE-toe-chemicals) that are powerful antioxidants helping to control high blood pressure and protect against diabetes related circulatory diseases, and sulphur based compounds (which give onions their distinctive taste and smell), also known as beauty minerals, because they relate to skin and detoxification and are vital to liver function and detox.
So it’s the anthocyanins that give all ‘red’ fruit and vegetables their colour and their extra antioxidant qualities and the same applied to a curiously maroon coloured, naturally grown carrot that we were introduced to at A & M University.
Called ‘BetaSweet, the carrot has a deep maroon outer layer, bright orange centre and rich sweet taste. It is being grown at Texas A & M University, where Dr. Leonard Pike, director of fruit and vegetable studies, explained it was discovered quite by accident. Testing showed it was full of healthful nutrients with 40 - 50% more beta-carotene than standard carrots.
Beta-carotene is a very potent antioxidant and carotenoid (naturally occurring pigment) that the body converts into vitamin A when required, to strengthen the immune system and promote healthy cell growth.
Again, it recognised as an effective cancer preventative compound and like anthocyanins, is able to be used as a perfectly safe natural food colouring.
We heard that this unusual carrot has been introduced to a special programme at the university, similar to ‘The 5+ a Day’ (five servings of fruit and vegetables a day) developed by the American Cancer Society. Called VIC Kids, this interactive educational program is designed to educate three to five year olds in a fun way about the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables to maintain good health by lowering their risk to diet-related diseases. Many of the children in the programme have been brought up on processed packaged food and had never even seen simple things we take so much for granted, like strawberries.
This is where ‘BetaSweet’ carrots come in. Cut into crisp slices or sticks, with their special colour and sweet taste they are an excellent way to introduce the children to ‘fresh food’ and are included in the tasting part of the activities.
We heard about other areas of research, directly linked to helping combat cancer. Dr. Pike explained that his team are also helping cancer researchers at Southwestern Medical School and Baylor School of Dentistry who are studying red varieties of grapefruit.
“The researchers are working on oral cancer inhibitors and lycopene (pronounced LiKE-oh-peen) from grapefruit is one thing they say is producing benefits against oral cancer”.
Research has shown that red varieties of grapefruit are very high in lycopene and by harvesting the fruit later, the lycopene content increases and improves the pectin levels in the fruit. Pectin is another natural substance in grapefruit that can help control blood cholesterol and help prevent prostate cancer.
Lycopine is also found in fruit like watermelon and tomatoes. Unlike most items of produce however, which are best eaten fresh, in this case, it is processed or cooked tomatoes, made in to a sauce, puree or juice that are better sources, because the process of cooking breaks down the cell walls of the tomato, allowing our bodies to absorb the lycopene.
When it comes to red, it’s all good news. As well as red onions, the benefits are found in apples (red varieties), raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, pomegranates, raspberries, watermelon, beetroot, red peppers, radishes, red potatoes, pink grapefruit, kidney beans, red grapes and cherries, red cabbage, radicchio rhubarb and tomatoes.
After listening to the specialists, we were left in no doubt that with the current consumption of fast foods, increased health problems and reliance on synthetic drugs, the need to emphasis the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet as a disease preventative should be driven from the health sector and fresh produce retailers.
It looks like the key lies in prevention and going back to the ways of our ancestors – therefore preventing diseases through the right diet, rather than trying to cure diseases.
After all, in earlier times, people relied on plants for food as well as to help in preventing and curing diseases. Then medical technology introduced drugs as a way of dealing with illness and the emphasis shifted from preventing to curing diseases. Our busy lifestyles also mean we eat more prepared and processed foods, and less fresh fruits and vegetables with the outcome being a huge increase in diet related diseases.
So every time you choose to eat fresh red fruit and vegetables you may well be saving your life.
And what’s more, those involved in the research suggest that in the future we may well have dedicated pharmaceutical section in the green grocer department of our supermarkets along with special computer programming link-ups to medical experts who could recommend additions to our shopping list on the spot.
It’s likely those ‘red’ onions will pop up every time.
© 2004 Linda Donald
All rights reserved
Appeared in Fitness Life
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