Health and Wellness
December 30, 2007
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Earlier this year, spice maker McCormick & Co. introduced black food coloring – the first of its kind ever to hit the American marketplace. In doing so, McCormick tapped into a growing, worldwide trend. Black foods, from blackberries to black soybeans, were once simply enjoyed for their rich taste. Today, consumers are gathering up black food items for their possible health benefits.
Lovely to look at it, thanks to their high anthocyanin content, items like black vinegar, black sesame seeds and black rice are used in many traditional Asian meals. Celebrated for centuries in China, black foods have long been renowned for their fantastic flavors. However, it’s the anthocyanins – those bright red, purple pigments contained in things like cherries, blueberries and blackberries – that scientists are focusing on now.
That’s because anthocyanins, which fall under the broader category of flavonoids, act as powerful antioxidants. They may even help prevent cancer, aging, inflammation and diabetes. Over 4,000 flavonoids have been identified, mainly occurring in fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids may help reduce the risk of various diseases by contributing to the total antioxidant defense system of the human body. In one study, conducted at Ohio State University, scientists found that black carrots helped slow the growth of cancer cells by up to 80%. Black raspberries helped shrink the growth of esophageal and colon cancers.
Focus on the health aspects of black foods really spiked a couple of years ago, when the Japanese company known as House Foods introduced a cocoa drink with black soybeans – and sold over $50 million of the product in its first year. Then, Japan granted a black-soybean tea FOSHU status (Foods for Specified Health Use) – their version of an FDA health claim.
Even as far back as the early 90s, a food processor of the Zhuang tribe in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, was already flooding the Chinese market with black wheat, rice and soybeans. Now, several American companies have hit the Asian markets with their own black foods products. Kellogg’s, for their part, recently released a product under the name “Black Sesame Seed Cereal.”
Dr. Yao-wen Huang, a Professor of Food Science and Technology at the University of Georgia, says that the theory (and practice) of dietary therapy for disease, as well as using food as tonics, has long been the basis of Chinese medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine, foods can be categorized according to a number of things, including the Five Elemental Energies of water, wood, fire, earth and metal, their tastes – salty, sour, bitter, sweet and pungent, and their colors – red, green, yellow, white and black. Colors in foods are then linked to specific organs. While red foods are linked to the heart, black foods are known to improve kidney function.
“The kidney is considered the most important organ-meridian (or transportation) system, both functionally and therapeutically, since strong kidney function provides power to all the other organic systems and serves as a reservoir of highly refined stored energy,” says Huang.
Different black products can actually contain different types of flavonoids, though all have similar potential health benefits. For example, the FOSHU-granted “Black Bean Tea” contains 40 mg of soy isoflavones per serving. The cocoa drink from House Foods contains 20 mg of soy isoflavones and 140mg of polyphenols (as anthocyanins) per serving. Like anthocyanins, isoflavones are flavonoids, but isoflavones are contained primarily in soybeans. The health benefits of these natural plant hormones may include protection against breast cancer, prostate cancer, menopausal symptoms, heart disease and osteoporosis.
“Consumers may want to take in more varieties of dark colored grains, fruits and vegetables that contain high levels of flavonoids. I believe that taking black foods will increase the intake of natural antioxidants and may benefit human health,” says Huang.
Perhaps the most well known black foods are blackberries, those deeply hued fruits that contain more antioxidants than any other fruit item. Some of the other popular varieties of black foods include black beans, which contains more antioxidants than any other bean, black rice, which is rich in anthocyanins and contains more fiber than white rice, black vinegar, which is typically made from brown rice and may help lower blood pressure, black soybeans, which are high in isoflavones, and black sesame seeds, which are a good source of essential fatty acids.
As far as the future of black foods in the American market goes, Huang predicts that black foods could be the next big thing. He points out that Americans are already very familiar with things like black soybeans in Cuban food, squid ink in Italian food, and brown or dark wild rice in just about anything – even though processed black foods are still very limited here. But that will surely change, says Huang.
“Black soymilk, black soy yogurt, black sesame ice cream, black wheat bread and black rice bars are all potential candidates for future products in the U.S. Due to the health benefits of black foods, the food industry will likely embrace new product development and innovation in this area.”