Purple foods are taking the country by storm
Health or hype?
Like a toreador flashing his purple cape, the media swirls with promises that rise and dip as well as assertions, speculations and hopes that purple foods are the new health messiah.
In a world where we don’t really know what’s in us and around us, more than a few are craving the next bonanza. Bursting with popularity, purple foods are definitely in the crosshairs these days, with claims and intimations that they have beneficial effects on cancer, dementia, inflammation, blood pressure, digestion, weight loss, aging and heart issues.
In our desire to finds cures and to use food as medicine, we must, however, rely on science, taking our time before making claims about purple foods.
“Anthocyanins give purple food their color,” says Britt Burton-Freeman, Ph.D., director at the Center for Nutrition Research of the Institute for Food Safety and Health, and associate professor, food science/nutrition, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. “Anthocyanins are polyphenols, a chemical structure in plants. We can live without polyphenols, but life is better with them.”
You could say that you and the food you eat are one big chemistry experiment. “Plants are full of chemicals, and so are human bodies,” Burton-Freeman says. “The human body is a basket of chemicals doing chemistry all the time. With food, it’s food chemistry interacting with human chemistry.
“Anthocyanins are touted for their power as antioxidants, and berries have the highest amounts of anthocyanins in the skin, such as the blueberry, whereas others may have them in the skin and in the flesh, such as blackberries.”
Relying on science before making claims, it is insightful to know that studies on purple foods and their anthocyanins have been done in three ways: research in cells; studies in animal models (rats and mice); and studies in humans.
“Studies in humans suggest blueberries possess benefits relative to blood pressure,” Burton-Freeman says. There are also studies in humans supporting effects on metabolic syndrome and cognitive function. In the last few years, studies in humans suggest that Concord grape juice has beneficial effects in cognition, such as problem-solving, troubleshooting and memory. Other purple foods may have benefits, too.
“There is some data, although not much, on blackberries, a handful of human studies on elderberries, some on black currants and some on bilberries. The animal and cell culture research helps us determine how these purple anthocyanin compounds work in the body.”
But, she points out, “All we can say is we know with some certainty that the evidence from all research is mounting to give people confidence that these purple foods help promote health and reduce risk of some diseases. But we can’t say it’s absolutely proven yet.”
Instead Burton-Freeman advises us to use an array of foods in our cooking and eating. “Different purple foods have different polyphenols. So eat a variety of purple foods and all foods so you can get the benefit of various combinations of polyphenols.”
She also stresses how nature bewitches with beauty and color. “One of the functions of color in flowers is to attract insects for pollination. So we, too, can use these colors and foods to attract humans to a plate of health.”
A palette of purple hues
From soup to pizza to a pairing with miso-glazed crab, purple cauliflower flaunts its diversity and dexterity from upscale to downscale and all around the plate.
At Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, Hawaii, executive chef Craig Dryhurst’s classy cauliflower dish stacks purple, yellow and white cauliflower, evoking the sunset he displays on his Twitter feed. In Los Angeles, chef Tony Esnault has powered his legumes de saison into a legend at Spring, his Southern French restaurant.
He has compared his palette of colored foods, which has included purple cauliflower, to a painting created with a variety of in-season vegetables cooked separately in a variety of ways.
Offered since it first opened, Chicago’s Prime & Provisions features pickled purple cauliflower with carrots, shaved fennel, candied pecans and local feta, a dish so popular it can’t be taken off the menu.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, Paleo guru Christopher James Clark has fixed purple cauliflower with poached eggs jazzed by purple from the cauliflower and yellow from the eggs.
And one can only imagine how the violet/purple in Filipino yams (ube) are thrilling patrons at owner/founder Ginger Dimapasok’s Café 86, where a mania of purple pastries and milkshakes have popped up in Chico, Pasadena and Artesia, California, as well as in Las Vegas.
Of this purple vegetable well-known in the Philippines and also grown in Hawaii, Jessica Lopez, shift leader at the Chico Café 86 store, says, “It’s sweet—kind of a mixture of vanilla and coconut. People get intimidated when I tell them it’s a purple yam. Their eyes get big. Then they are surprised by the flavor, which tastes nothing like what they were expecting. When they come back, they thank me for encouraging them to taste it.”
The flan ube cupcake and ube truffles are the most popular items. “The ube crinkle is a soft chewy cookie with powdered sugar on top. It’s purple inside, and my personal favorite—so good,” Lopez says. Other choices include halo-halo bread pudding with coconut and jackfruit topped with ube ice cream.
There’s also cheesecake, vegan Bundt cake, madeleines and so much more among the ube surprises. Café 86 gets ube from the Philippines, cooking it down into a jam, which it also uses in milkshakes.
At the wildly popular Beatnik in Chicago, Spanish chef Marcos Campos offers glorious fried baby eggplant with Dijon mustard/date syrup sauce, fresh oregano and za’atar. His half duck is prepared with mole, pickled blackberries, orange-glazed endive and parsnip. He has offered his pluma iberica with both a gel of pickled plums and smoked grapes.
At Seattle’s JuneBaby, the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant, chef Edouardo Jordan explores the African origins of Southern food, offering red cabbage on JuneBaby’s hot link sausage and fried chicken special. Loved in Africa, China, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway and Denmark, red cabbage graces roasted goose with steamed Czech dumplings (knedliky).
Purple-leafed red napa cabbage is used in Korea to make kimchi, which can be found in bibimbap. Germans find it a spicy playmate for roast Christmas goose. And Poles top sausages with it while the Chinese use it to add splashy crunch to salads.
Around the world, purple foods create a purple rain as edible purple pansies, violets and Karma orchids fall into cocktails, into salads and onto our plates.