Red vs green

Two glum faces, one big and one small, looked at me across the dining table as I served dinner. “No more greens," my husband said emphatically. “No, no," echoed my 20-month-old son. Sensing a mealtime mutiny, I had to think fast, or the ‘healthy food, healthy life’ family resolve we’d adopted would soon be jettisoned. “No problem," I said airily, taking back their plates and piling on some tomatoes and carrots, “we’ll stick to reds for now."

Red is for lycopene

Start with the ubiquitous tomato. The red definitely signifies power here: The medical world is only now beginning to discover the many astonishing properties of the agent that makes the tomato red, a chemical called lycopene.

Lycopene belongs to a family of molecules called carotenoids which forms vitamin A and boosts the immune system. But it is also a strong antioxidant and helps prevent heart diseases as well as degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. A recent study showed lycopene could halve your risk of a heart attack. The higher the concentration of the molecule, the better—so spreading that tomato puree generously may be a good idea. It also protects against cancer—a Harvard Medical School study says having tomatoes more than twice a week (10 servings) could reduce the risk of prostate cancer by up to a third in men. Other studies indicate its role in protecting women against cervical cancer. Lycopene is even said to increase sperm count in infertile men.

…and also for betalains

Beets are also rich in minerals such as potassium, manganese, calcium and iron—beetroot juice is often given to anaemic women. Beetroot also has abundant vitamin C and folic acid, vital for pregnant women.

A recent UK study showed that drinking 500ml of beetroot juice a day reduced blood pressure. These wonder roots are said to boost blood circulation, help the liver and gall bladder function and relieve constipation. In ancient Pompeii, beetroot was considered an aphrodisiac—one modern hypothesis is that the high levels of the mineral boron it contains may influence the production of sex hormones. The final bonus: It has very few calories.

And orange is for carotenoids

I’m particularly keen that my son has another bright-coloured vegetable, though I confess this one’s typically counted as orange rather than red—carrots. A single carrot (grated for ease of eating) would be sufficient for my toddler’s whole day’s worth of vitamin A intake, which would help his eyesight. Carrots are also a great source of fibre and a whole host of minerals. And the betacarotene in carrots—which make them orange, and sometimes red—are antioxidants too.

Red bell peppers are also an excellent source of a range of vitamins—A, C, K and E—which, among others, help boost immune function and reduce risk of arthritis and asthma. Red bell peppers also contain lycopenes. Another caretenoid they contain, beta-cryptoxanthin, could help stave off lung cancer, battling the effects of second-hand smoke. Peppers also bring with them capsaicin, shown to decrease blood cholesterol and triglycerides, boost immunity and reduce the risk of stomach ulcers.

Postscript: Convincing the family is not easy. For those who say “I don’t like carrots", try adding just a bit of chocolate to a traditional carrot cake recipe. Where there’s a will… there’s a wile!

Supriya Bezbaruah writes on health and science and will author a monthly column for Business of Life on eating right.

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