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How to Harness Nature’s Rainbow

Fruits and vegetables can add dazzling colors—and flavor—to a wide range of dishes.

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If you’re looking to add a bit of color to a salad or a grain bowl, vividly hued fruits and vegetables provide the palette. So why don’t we think about colors derived from natural foods—colors that are often markers of ripeness, or good, ready-to-eat food—throughout the kitchen more often? Not only are natural pigments derived from fruits and vegetables a healthier choice (some research suggests that food dyes can lead to hyperactivity and other attention problems in children), they can provide beautiful color and flavor to a dish. Even better, kids love to play around with different combinations, and experimenting is a great way to get them involved in the kitchen.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most commonly found and easily utilized plant-based pigments, as well as a bit about how you can put them to work.

Purple, Pink, Blue
Anthocyanin

This wildly healthy antioxidant, which has anti-cancer properties and is also an anti-inflammatory, is behind a variety of beautiful plant hues. The pigment is responsible for the deep blue of ripening blueberries, the rich red of beets, and the vivid near-purple of blood oranges. Often appearing as a highly saturated color, anthocyanin is easy to utilize for its color—and using it can have culinary benefits, too. Making a red velvet cake? Using shredded beats in the batter will not only color it, but can also help keep it moist.

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Orange, Yellow
Carotenoids, Carotene

Carotene, derived from the Latin word for carrot, is an orange pigment found in … well, carrots. It’s also the pigment that gives butter its yellow hue, as well as the red-orange of sweet potatoes and, outside of the kitchen, the blazing colors of fall leaves. Carrot juice can be used as an orange dye in the kitchen (rainbow carrots can help to broaden your color selection), and the extra carotene it provides will be good for whoever eats it, too: Carotene is converted into vitamin A, which can contribute to both good skin and a strong immune system.

Red
Lycopene

A carotenoid cousin to carotene, red-hued lycopene is found in a host of red fruits and vegetables, from apples to watermelon, but is more commonly associated with tomatoes, which have it in spades. An antioxidant, lycopene has anti-cancer properties and is also good for the skin. Tomatoes are excellent for lending a bright color to savory dishes, but sweeter (and far less tart) beets are preferable as a dye used in baking.

Green
Chlorophyll

By far the most ubiquitous plant pigment, chlorophyll is the green we see in the natural world—found in tree leaves and grass as well as lettuces and kale. The green is far from being a decorative feature: Chlorophyll is a key component in photosynthesis, responsible for producing the oxygen we breathe. In the kitchen, any highly saturated leafy green, like spinach or kale, can be utilized for its color.

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