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Anthocyanins, antioxidants and heart healthy phytonutrients

Anthocyanins, antioxidants in the heart-healthy flavonoid class of phytonutrients

Red, purple, and blue fruits and vegetables- can they decrease your risk of death from coronary heart disease? Anthocyanins, natural plant pigments and compounds in the flavonoid class- a better way to improve your health?


Culinary Medicine

by Stefanie Schwartz, MS, RD, CDN and Rich Strongwater, MD

Anthocyanins comprise a group of compounds in the flavonoid class. Flavinoids are low-molecular-weight phenolic compounds that are found widely throughout the plant kingdom. Anthocyanins are water-soluble, pigments found in plant vacuoles that give fruits and vegetables their red, purple, and blue colors. Vacuoles are water-filled cytoplasmic plant organelles that help maintain water balance. Anthocyanidins are the sugar

free form of anthocyanins.

Some foods high in anthocyanin content are black currants, acai, black raspberries, blueberries, purple corn, Concord grapes, red apples, eggplant, cranberries, cherries, black plums and red cabbage. Cyanidin-3-glucoside is the main anthocyanin found in many of these foods.

purple grape

Commercially, anthocyanin pigments are used as “natural food” additives to give food products more attractive color. Commercial food products that may use these natural colorants include yogurt drinks, desserts and mixed fruit juices.

Anthocyanin intake may reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness, enhance memory, and slow age-related cognitive decline. Laboratory studies have shown anticarcinogenic activity. Anthocyanins have many potential benefits including: antioxidant properties, activating detoxifying enzymes, decreasing cancer cell proliferation, and inducing apoptosis (the orderly death of cells as a normal part of an organism’s repair processes, growth or embryonic development). They also have anti-inflammatory and anti-angiogenic effects. Health experts recommend at least three servings of anthocyanin-rich fruits

and vegetables per week.

An excellent review article published in the 2017 issue of Food and Nutrition Research stated the following: “Scientific studies, such as cell culture studies, animal models, and human clinical trials, show that anthocyanidins and anthocyanins possess antioxidative and antimicrobial activities, improve visual and neurological health, and protect against various non-communicable diseases.” The authors felt these studies indicated that the health effects of anthocyanidins and anthocyanins, are due to their potent antioxidant properties and cytoprotective effects.

Pearl to Know

There seems to be an association between anthocyanin-rich foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease. The Iowa Women's Health Study of postmenopausal women without cardiovascular disease (CVD) followed participants for 16 years and those who ate more anthocyanidin containing food showed a significant reduction in death from coronary heart disease.


To date, there have only been a few human clinical trials that validate the health benefits of anthocyanins or their ability to reduce disease. Their bioactivity, uptake, absorption, bioavailability, and tissue distribution are not well understood and require further study. However, based on some animal and human studies, it seems that consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer (via antiangiogenesis effect as well as other mechanisms), diabetes and cognitive decline. More research is needed to conclusively prove these benefits and investigate further if there are any adverse effects of high dose consumption of anthocyanins.


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Stefanie Schwartz, MS, RD, CDN

Stefanie Schwartz earned her degree at Hunter College and has owned her own private practice, Nutritionally Yours in Chappaqua, New York for 23 years. Her specialty counseling areas are weight loss, heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, inflammatory diseases, and food addiction. She works one on one with families, and does group lectures. Her other current interests are cooking, hiking, and weight training.

Rich Strongwater, MD

Dr. Strongwater is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, and is a diplomate of the American Board of Family Medicine. He has been a practicing family physician for 35 years. He completed his residency in Family Medicine at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey. Prior to this, he completed his undergraduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and received his MD degree from the State University of New York in Syracuse, New York. His hobbies include snow shoeing, hiking, and windsurfing.


  • Mink PJ, Scafford CG, Barrag LM, et al. Flavonoid intake and cardiovascular disease mortality: a prospective study in post menopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr, 2007;85:895-909.

  • Cassidy A, Mukamal KJ, Liu L, Franz M, Eliassen AH, Rimm EB. High anthocyanin intake is associated with a reduced risk of myocardial infarction in young middle age women. Circulation. 2013;127:188-196.

  • Wang LS, Stoner GD. Anthocyanins and their role in cancer prevention. Cancer Lett. 2008;269:281-290.

  • Khoo HE, Azlan A, Tang ST, Lim SM. Anthocyanidins and anthocyanins: colored pigments as food, pharmaceutical ingredients, and the potential health benefits. Food Nutr Res. 2017; 61(1): 1361779. Published online 2017 Aug 13. doi: 10.1080/16546628.2017.1361779


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