Colour – its wonders and its benefits

By Neil Baldwin – thanks for all the great walks you organise


What inspires me to write about this topic now are the Autumn colours of course – wow and there still there, not for long though!  The joy of being outside on a sunny autumn day is always enhanced if you can be mindful.  Focussing on colours is one way you can do this, rather than looking at all the leaves on the floor and thinking that’s another job sweeping up leaves, I haven’t got time because I’ve got x, y, and z on my to do list; instead just really focus on those colours and textures of autumn.  What amazed me on my many trips down the phoenix trail, near where I live, was how bright green the nettles were!  You see if you stay in the present you might just be surprised at what you see. What’s more this sort of mindful activity is a perfect antidote to life’s stress.  Benefits of being in nature have been researched and just a 15-minute walk in a forest compared to a city was shown to increase vigour, energy and improve mood. (1)

I’ve known for a while now, nutritionally the importance of colour in food, but it was only when I came to write this blog I started to think what psychological effect it has.

“Colour is the single most important product-intrinsic sensory cue when it comes to setting people’s expectations regarding the likely taste and flavour of food and drink.”(2)

Much research in the area is based on adding food colouring and observing its effect, however understanding is often taken from our ancestors primaeval need to identify ripe and nutritious food versus bad. Evolution gave humans and some other primates an advantage of trichromatic vision or red blue green vision thus enabling an advantage in finding and identifying nutritious food.

In todays environment we don’t always look for or recognise what is nutritious and good for us.  Instead we crave for food which gives us a short-term release of endorphins and satisfaction linked to the high calorie and often high sugar content.  Strangely the widely available processed food is generally not that colourful, perhaps why food manufacturers have to consider food colourings!

The key to colour in food is that it is there because of the phytonutrients present, which include polyphenols and these micronutrients are being connected with health and prevention of degenerative diseases. (3) … “Polyphenols offer great hope for the prevention of chronic human diseases” …

Beneficial effects of dietary plant polyphenols


Polyphenolic content of a plant is increased by stress, when a plant is stressed by its environment it produces more polyphenols.  One reason why Organic produce is better for you, as the plants are more stressed by insect attack and therefore produce more polyphenols.

So, start to target some colour in your diet. It is one of Rangan Chatterjee’s key goals in his 4 pillars of health book and you can download his chart here.  Getting colour on your plate is very satisfying, there are an unbelievable variety of vivid colours to be found in natural foods so give it a try.

There is so much fascinating science behind the colours of Fruits and vegetables too much for this blog.  Returning to our countryside for inspiration leads me to expand on the leaves and the berries.

Chlorophyll molecule with Magnesium at the centre

It is the Dark Green Leafy Vegetables (DGLV) that are often considered the most nutrient rich vegetable and sadly one that we struggle to eat despite there being a large selection available.  Most people associate DGLV with iron which they are of course a source of, unfortunately the non-haem version of iron is not very bioavailable, the much-berated red meat is a much better source of bioavailable iron.  DGLV get their colour from the chlorophyll and this compound has a magnesium molecule at its centre making them a rich source of this important nutrient, Magnesium deficiency is not uncommon among the general population.(4)

However, the DGLV also contain many more phytonutrients including beta carotene, better known for its presence in carrots, but of course that’s what gives our leaves their orange colour when the plant gradually takes the nutrients from the leaves, the chlorophyll breaks down leaving the other phytonutrients  to show their true colours.  (5)


Berries deserve a special mention because of the high levels of anti-oxidants and phytonutrients and from a


fruit point of view they’re low in sugar.  You can imagine our ancestors would have gorged themselves on them whilst they were available setting themselves up for the winter months.  The red/blue colours come from the Anthocyanin’s a much-researched phytonutrient perhaps because of its presence in red wine. (6)


Don’t forget the other colours “Eat a rainbow” its just so engaging serving up a colourful meal not just for kids. Visualising this as something that is nourishing and age preventative and might add some further enjoyment to your food.  Here’s my own chart I use with many children’s groups.



  1. Takayama N, Korpela K, Lee J, et al. Emotional, restorative and vitalizing effects of forest and urban environments at four sites in Japan. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014;11(7):7207-30. Published 2014 Jul 15. doi:10.3390/ijerph110707207 ( )
  2. Spence, Charles On the psychological impact of food colour. Flavour 2015 ( )
  3. Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009;2(5):270-8. ( )
  4. Gröber U, Schmidt J, Kisters K. Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients. 2015;7(9):8199-226. Published 2015 Sep 23. doi:10.3390/nu7095388 ( )
  5. Amagloh FK, Atuna RA, McBride R, Carey EE, Christides T. Nutrient and Total Polyphenol Contents of Dark Green Leafy Vegetables, and Estimation of Their Iron Bioaccessibility Using the In Vitro Digestion/Caco-2 Cell Model. Foods. 2017;6(7):54. Published 2017 Jul 22. doi:10.3390/foods6070054 ( )
  6. Daotong Li, Pengpu Wang, Yinghua Luo, Mengyao Zhao & Fang Chen(2017) Health benefits of anthocyanins and molecular mechanisms: Update from recent decade, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57:8, 1729-1741, DOI: 1080/10408398.2015.1030064 ( )