This next installment in our series on the color of food looks at the variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, grains and condiments that add a loving splash of red to your diet.
What Makes Food Red?
Red foods get their color from the pigments contained inside the cells. There are different pigments in plant-based foods and meat-based foods, which have different health benefits for us when we eat them.
Red plants get their coloring from carotenoids, specifically lycopene, anthocyanins and betacyanins. As well as imparting a deep red hue to the plants, these compounds are antioxidants that will help protect your body against free radical damage that can lead to cancer.
They can also help reduce cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, hypertension and high cholesterol. So these red fruits and vegetables really can keep your heart healthy.
In red animal products, the most common red pigment is myoglobin. This is a compound related to hemoglobin in the blood, which is what makes blood red and helps our blood cells carry oxygen around the body. Myoglobin acts as a store of oxygen in the muscle, and has a bright red color. The pigment itself contains iron, which helps it bind the oxygen molecules.
Red meat is a good dietary source of iron, supporting your cardiovascular system in delivering oxygen around your body, and can help avoid anemia. But that’s not to say red meat is essential to a healthy diet: there are other good sources of iron in vegetarian foods, including leafy greens.
The List: 28 Red Foods
Beef is the third most widely consumed meat around the world. When cooked correctly, a lean steak can be a healthy part of your diet, packed with protein, niacin, vitamin B12, iron and zinc. No wonder countries such as New Zealand, Australia, United States, Uruguay and Argentina are some of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of beef.
Beef gets its strong red color from the myoglobin molecules in the meat, which contribute to its iron content.
2. Blood Oranges
On the outside, this fruit might look like a regular orange but as you cut into them, juice the color of blood will emerge! The flesh of this type of orange can take on a range of red colors from crimson blood-like, to maroon or even dark pink. The fruit may taste a bit tart compared to regular oranges, but are still a great source of vitamin C, antioxidants, potassium and fiber. Blood oranges make a refreshing juice, and are an exciting addition to baked goods, cocktails and salads.
Carmine is one of those things you might never have heard of, but probably eat on a daily basis. Carmine is a red food coloring, used in yogurt, fruit juices, ice cream, jelly, hot dogs and a lot more. But if you’re not a fan of insects, then this colorant might make you cringe: carmine is also known as cochineal extract, and cochineal is a type of beetle! That’s right: this deep red food coloring is essentially ground up insects.
However creepy it might seem, the FDA has approved the red pigment and it is found in a range of everyday products, even outside of the kitchen, including cosmetics, paints, ink and some medication.
This small red stone fruit is a seasonal favorite. Its color ranges from yellow to deep, blackish red, and makes a great addition to drinks and desserts. Cherries are a sweet source of your daily vitamin C, potassium, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, that together promotes a healthy heart and strong immune system. A word of warning though: these health benefits don’t apply to maraschino or glacé cherries, as the candying process steals a lot of the nutrients out of these little fruits.
This native superfood from North America is another popular source of carbs, fiber, minerals such as manganese and copper, and vitamins C, E and K1. While cranberry sauce may be a Thanksgiving staple, these little berries also make an appearance in juices, stuffing, casseroles and desserts.
Cranberries have been used for centuries as a traditional medicine for urinary tract infections, a role that has been confirmed by scientific research: cranberry juice contains a particular compound that prevents bacteria setting up home in the bladder, helping your body recover quickly from a bout of cystitis.
6. Goji Berry
Twenty years ago, you might not have heard of goji berries, but their recent fame as a superfood has made them a household name. These bright orange-red berries, also known as wolfberries, are said to cure health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, fever and age-related visual problems. They are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, fiber, iron, protein and antioxidants.
Patients taking blood thinners such as warfarin should check with their doctor before adding goji berries into their diet in any amount, as there can sometimes be interactions between the compounds in the berries and your medication.
7. Hibiscus Tea
This herbal tea has a tart flavor similar to cranberries, which you can enjoy drinking either hot or cold. Made from dried parts of the Hibiscus plant, which originates in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the tea is deep red in color.
Some research showed that it can lower blood pressure, reduces high cholesterol and triglycerides in diabetes or metabolic syndrome, but it’s use as a medical supplement has still not been proven. Patients who take hydrochlorothiazide are advised to check with your doctor before drinking hibiscus tea, to avoid further interaction.
This sweet tangy sauce is a familiar condiment for your French fries, hamburgers, hotdogs and more. Ketchup has its origins in South-East Asian “kecap”, which is a thick, dark, soy- or fish-based sauce. It is thought that Europeans, in trying to replicate the sauce, developed a tomato-based version which became the ketchup we know today.
Modern tomato ketchup is made from tomatoes, sugar, vinegar with seasoning and spices to achieve its flavor. While the sugar content means it should only be consumed in moderation, there are claims that tomato ketchup helps to reduce the risk of prostate cancer, increase sperm count, lower cholesterol and improve vision.
9. Kidney Beans
If you are a fan of Mexican chili con carne, Spanish caparrones, Indonesian brenebon or Iraqi fasoulia, then you must be familiar with this little red bean. This kidney-shaped pulse is an essential food crop and also a leading vegetable source of protein, making them a welcome addition to a range of vegetarian and vegan dishes. They are also packed full of fiber, and can contribute to colon health.
A word of warning though: be careful when cooking kidney beans, and always make sure that this red bean is properly cooked. Raw kidney beans contain phytohemagglutinin which is toxic to our body, but this poison is destroyed when the beans are boiled in water.
One of the most appetizing of treats, this delicious shellfish, which is typically served boiled or steamed, is an excellent source of copper and selenium as well as contributing protein, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamins B12 and E and traces of omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. This seafood contains astaxanthin, a keto-carotenoid which gives lobster its characteristic bright red color when cooked.
People with shellfish allergy should avoid eating lobster, and pregnant women are also advised to limit their lobster intake as it can contain moderate levels of mercury.
11. Marinara Sauce
Marinara sauce is a tomato-based sauce that is widely used in Italian-American meat and fish dishes, commonly served with spaghetti or vermicelli. It is made with tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs that not only make the sauce tasty but also provide a rich source of vitamin C and antioxidants. The concentrated fresh ingredients in the sauce may help guard against heart disease and reduce the risk of diabetes.
The edible berry of the Muntingia calabura tree is also called the Jamaican Cherry. It is originally native to the region from Mexico south to Bolivia, but is now widely present across the tropics. The berries grow in clusters on the tree, have a bright red skin when ripe, and are full of tiny edible seeds.
The fruit has a sweet taste when eaten raw, and can also be made into jam. These little berries have been used in traditional medicine, and are said to help with respiratory problems and diarrhea, as well as having a potent anti-inflammatory effect.
This ground red spice gives color to some of your favorite spicy dishes. Paprika is made from the ground, dried red fruits of Capsicum annuum, which can range in spiciness from mild to very hot!
Paprika is found in various traditional cuisines around the world, including Central and South America, South and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It is primarily used to season and color rice, stews and soups, or in a meat rub prior to grilling or roasting cuts of meat. It is a good source of vitamin A in the diet, and also contains some vitamin B6 and E.
Some of the most popular varieties of radish have a bright red skin, including Cherry belle, Crimson giant, Champion and French Breakfast types. The root vegetable has a watercress-like taste with a hint of mustard flavor. This fresh, healthy vegetable is good for more than just salads: they give a crispy texture to your tacos, sandwiches, pasta and pizza, and are great roasted, grilled or pickled. Radishes contain active enzymes that can help your digestion.
This summer favorite is from the Rubus genus, of which there are a number of different species that grow around the world. The most commonly-known are the European red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) and the American red raspberry (Rubus strigosus). Raspberries add a sweetness and tart flavor to your jams and juices, and are also a great source of vitamin C when eaten raw or in desserts.
With its bright red, translucent berries, the redcurrant bush is a member of genus Ribes in the gooseberry family, which is native across Europe. This red fruit is also known as a “super-fruit” because it contains an excellent level of antioxidants as well as being a good source of vitamins C and K, manganese and potassium. Redcurrants lend themselves to jellies, syrups or baked goods, and can even be used in a face-mask to revitalize tired skin.
17. Red Delicious Apples
This red variety of apple is probably one of the most popular in America, and the most widely cultivated worldwide. The apple has a characteristic red skin and juicy, crispy white flesh with a mild sweet flavor. The fruit contains a high level of anthocyanin to keep your heart healthy, and a good amount of fiber, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamin K.
18. Red Grapes
Considered to be one of the most versatile fruits, grapes can be eaten fresh or processed to form one of your favorite wine, jam, juice, jelly, vinegar and raisins. Red grapes are rich in antioxidants that can help your blood vessels relax and reduce inflammation. A third of the world’s vineyards are located in Italy, Spain and France, while California produces around 90% of America’s table grapes.
19. Red Peppers
Known by several names including bell pepper, ornamental pepper, capsicum or sweet pepper, this red salad vegetable has a mild, sweet earthy taste. The plant originated from Central and South America, and is a common ingredient in Mexican and South American dishes. It is an abundant source of vitamins A, B and C as well as providing minerals and antioxidants.
20. Red Quinoa
A native of South America, from the flowering plant Chenopodium quinoa, quinoa has become a household name in the last few years because it is a high-fiber, gluten-free alternative to most carbohydrate sources.
Red quinoa is also known as Inca Red, as Inca soldiers believed that their strength for battle came from its red color. This red pseudo-grain provides all nine primary amino acids, making it a healthy protein source, and is packed with more fiber, antioxidants and minerals than the white variety.
21. Red Rice
While rice is a staple food for over half the global population, it is usually white rice that is used as a mainstay carbohydrate. White rice is produced when the rice grains are polished to remove the protective bran layer surrounding the seed. But that bran layer provides a range of health benefits, including digestive benefits from fiber.
Red rice is one type of unpolished rice, in which the bran layer has a rich red-maroon color from anthocyanin compounds in the plant material. The red bran layer contains about 95% fiber, with minerals such as iron, zinc, potassium, manganese and more. Red rice is considered to have the highest nutrient value of all the rice varieties available today.
22. Red Wine
No list of red foods would be complete without mentioning red wine, which can vary in color from intense violet to brick red to brown depending on its maturity. Red wine has been a part of social, religious and cultural events around the world for millennia. The deep red color of wine comes from the skins of the grapes used in the wine-making process, and it is an excellent source of antioxidants such as resveratrol and procyanidins.
While excessive alcohol consumption is not recommended, moderate intake of red wine has been shown to protect your heart, and the combination of resveratrol and procyanidins have been shown to have an anti-aging effect on the skin.
Sausages are one of the most popular meat products, and red varieties can take their color from the spices and techniques used in their preparation. The exact ingredients of red sausages depends on the cuisine it comes from, but hot chili paste, carmine, cayenne pepper and sumac are examples of ingredients that are commonly used to give sausages a powerful taste as well as a vibrant red color.
The variety of techniques used to make sausages goes hand-in-hand with variety of flavor, as can be found in Italian pepperoni, Moroccan Merguez, Chinese Hóng cháng, Filipino Longaniza, Danish Rød pølse and the famous hot links from the Southern US.
24. Sriracha sauce
A common ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, Sriracha sauce is now also known as Rooster sauce and cock sauce in the United States, and has been incorporated into familiar dishes at Wendy’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s and more. This hot chili is made from chili pepper paste, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, making it a tasty dipping sauce for seafood, omelets, spring rolls and fried noodles in traditional Southeast Asian cuisine.
This summer fruit is widely appreciated for its aroma, bright red color, juiciness and sweetness. It is a common flavor for jelly, juice, ice cream and milkshakes, but offers the best health benefits when eaten raw.
This red fruit is filled with tons of vitamin C, antioxidants, manganese and some folate and potassium, making it a great boost for your immune system as well as protecting your heart. Strawberries are also used as a fragrance for soap, candies, lip gloss and perfumes.
Sumac is one of the most familiar spices in the Middle East and Asia, which has a deep red color with a tart, citrusy flavor. The fruits form in dense clusters on the bush, and are a characteristic dark red. Sumac is used worldwide as a spice for grilled meats, adding flavor to fresh veggies and enhancing delicate desserts.
The fruits are also used to make “pink lemonade”, which is an infusion of sumac with sweeteners such as sugar or honey. Sumac contains vitamin C which is good for your immune system, and has been shown to reduce high blood pressure in patients with hypertension.
This classic red food is mostly used as a vegetable ingredient and in salads and side dishes, but it is technically classified as a berry from the plant Solanum lycopersicum. Tomatoes contain high amounts of lycopene as well as being an adequate source of potassium, folate, vitamin C and vitamin K. Tomatoes can be eaten raw or added to sauces, salads and drinks to benefit from their health properties.
With a 92% water content, this large, thick-skinned fruit offers juicy refreshment on a hot summer’s day. The red color of the watermelon’s flesh is from lycopene, a compound that helps in keeping your heart and bones healthy.
The redder the watermelon, the more lycopene it contains! It also has significant levels of vitamins A, B6 and C, as well as antioxidants and amino acids. Watermelon is fat free and very low in sodium, which makes it a weight-loss friendly option as well.