Bernie Tennes has a favorite arthritis remedy--tart red cherry juice. "I drink it religiously, a glass a day," says Tennes, 62. It's a cure he discovered almost by accident. At the Country Mill farm market he owns in Charlotte, Mich., Tennes noticed that an elderly woman was buying the juice in huge quantities. It eased her arthritis, she said. Hearing that, another employee started taking it for her hip pain. Another began drinking it for her hands. Fifteen years later Tennes has close to 200 elderly customers who flock to his store for their cherry-juice fix. Just recently a 90-year-old woman came in and held out her hand to him, fingers straight. Tennes shot her an inquiring glance. "Sonny," she said, "last year this time it took me all morning just to partially straighten my fingers out. After a year of tart-cherry juice, just see what I can do."
It's a folk remedy, not a clinically proven treatment. But science is starting to figure out why sour-cherry juice just might work for Tennes and his customers. The secret is in the pigments that give cherries their rich red hue. They belong to a class of natural dyes called anthocyanins (Greek for "blue flower") that color fruits like blueberries, strawberries and plums. According to Dr. Muraleedharan Nair at Michigan State University, lab tests show that the anthocyanins in tart cherries give 10 times the anti-inflammatory relief of aspirin, without irritating the stomach. They are also potent antioxidants.
And they are not alone. In growing numbers of studies, the various pigments in fruits and vegetables have been shown to reduce cancer, heart disease and other ailments that result from a lifetime of oxidative damage. In short, vitamins and fiber are not the only reason to eat fruits and vegetables. There's also pigment power. "Fill up your plate with as many colorful foods as you can," advises Elizabeth Ward of the American Dietetic Association. "Think variety and color."
By thinking color, scientists are discovering powerful benefits in foods that were once regarded as nutritional weaklings. Blueberries, for example: in a recent test of 60 fruits and vegetables, anthocyanin-rich blueberries topped the list of fresh produce for antioxidant strength. According to Dr. James Joseph of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, that may translate into protection against age-related declines in memory and coordination. In his lab, Joseph staged a "rat Olympics." Elderly rodents (in the human equivalent of their 70s) were divided into four "teams"--a control group on a normal diet and three test groups with fortified diets including either pureed blueberries, strawberries or spinach. All three "pigment-fed" groups outperformed the control group on a memory test. But the blueberry-fed rats, who took in the greatest number of anthocyanins, excelled at motor skills, too. In the "lumberjack test"--in which the animals balance on a slowly spinning rod--the control group stayed on just four seconds. The blueberry group balanced for nine seconds. They also balanced nearly twice as long on stationary rods. "Motor behavior is one of the first things to decline as we age," says Joseph. "In other studies, little else has reversed these deficits."
Spinach may not do much for coordination, but it's very good for the eyes. That's because it's a storehouse of lutein and zeaxanthin, the pigments that make corn yellow. (They would make spinach yellow, too, if their hues weren't masked by chlorophyll--much like autumn leaves that show their underlying colors only after the chlorophyll dies off.) The two pigments protect yellow flowers from the damage of blue-spectrum rays of light. It turns out that they perform the same function in the macula-- the sensitive central portion of the retina, which is critical for eyesight. In epidemiological studies, those with the highest intake of lutein and zeaxanthin had a 40 to 45 percent reduced risk of developing macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. "The pigments function as internal sunglasses," says Billy Hammond, professor of vision science at the University of Georgia.
These colors are just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. There are literally hundreds of red-blue anthocyanins and yellow-orange carotenoids, dozens of which may be beneficial. The alpha and beta carotene in cantaloupe, pumpkins and carrots help prevent lung cancer. The cryptoxanthin in mangoes, oranges and papayas seems to decrease the risk of cervical cancer. The lycopene that puts the blush in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit helps fend off prostate cancer. In one study, researchers at Harvard tracked 48,000 men for six years and found that those who ate the most tomatoes, tomato sauce and pizza were up to 45 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer. Other studies have linked both beta carotene and lycopene to cardiovascular health. In general, the more colorful a food is, the greater the benefits. "Sweet potatoes outdo white potatoes," says dietitian Ward. "Butternut squash outdoes zucchini, which is white on the inside."
By far the best way to take in pigments is through whole foods, not supplements. For now, most anthocyanins are not even available in pill form. But even if they were, say researchers, people who rely too heavily on supplements miss out on the synergistic effects between the nutrients in foods. In fact, the best Rx for preventing troubles as we age may be a diet featuring a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables--preferably five to nine servings a day. "Take 10 cherries and call me in the morning"? The day when doctors say that may not be far off.