Black Is Beautiful: Dark Hues of Nature Hold Trove of Antioxidants

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

When it comes to food and health, black is both beautiful and beneficial. While green is hailed as the eco-health standard, new food research is revealing that the dark side of nature holds good things as well. According to doctors James Joseph and Daniel Nadeau (see Resources), “In the ORAC* tests at Tufts, blue foods quenched more free radicals than any other foods. Blueberries and blackberries were clear winners among fresh fruits; prunes and raisins among dried fruits.” Indeed, dark-coloured fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses due to the intense doses of antioxidant anthocyanins they contain.

Anthocyanins – from the Greek anthos meaning flower, and kyanos for dark blue – are nature’s sun block for plants. Along with the orange and yellow pigments or carotenoids, anthocyanins protect plants from the damaging ultraviolet sunlight. In humans, the antioxidant power of both pigments serves to reduce the oxidative or aging effect of free radicals as they pass through the body ravaging healthy cells. Not only do anthocyanin antioxidants slow the aging process, but they also help fight heart disease, cancer and other modern diseases.

*ORAC – Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, or antioxidant, anti-aging measurement

Editor’s Note: Anthocyanin-rich superfoods are a hot new trend in the world of nutritional medicine. Superfoods that score highest on the ORAC scale include Maqui berries, Acai berries, Maca root, raw cocoa powder, Noni fruit, blueberries, acerola, blackberries, and sprouted Chia seed. Add them to your morning power drink or sprinkle on any dish for a powerful nutritional boost.

A Black Primer

Eating food noir has never been easier because growers have turned to the ebony hues of grains, legumes, and vegetables in their search for new and healthyspecies of foods. Add to that the fact that global markets are offering up heirloom varieties and the selection of black foods is more readily available than ever before.

Balsamic and Apple Cider Vinegar – Unpasteurized is a key factor in determining the nutrients in food-derived vinegars. Traditionally fermented and wood-aged balsamic vinegar delivers small amounts of protein, phosphorus, sodium, zinc and copper as well as the following daily recommended amounts of minerals: 7% calcium; 10% iron; 8% magnesium and 17% manganese. Unpasteurized apple cider vinegar may contain as many as fifty healthy nutrients including pectin, minerals, vitamins and amino acids (protein). It is also very alkalinizing to the blood and tissues. In its journal, Diabetes Care, the American Diabetes Association cites several studies linking vinegar to improved insulin sensitivity and moderation of glucose concentrations. (See Resources.)

On the other hand, distilled or ‘white’ vinegar offers absolutely no nutrients (, and is acid-forming in the body. (Ed note: Modern diets and lifestyles tend to make the body overly acidic, which is a precursor to disease. So foods which alkalinize the body are helpful in preventing disease.)

Blackberries and Blueberries – Packed with powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, blueberries facilitate neural communication and protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes, and heart disease according to research by Dr. James Joseph, U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition and Research Center on Aging at Tufts University (see Resources). Second to blueberries which scored 2400 in ORAC value, blackberries scored 2036 units.

Black Cooking Utensils – The inky hues of cast iron and Barro Negro pots from the Andes, Colombia are some of the healthiest vessels for cooking food. Cast iron may be seasoned to make it non-stick and it is an excellent heat conductor, which means that frying and searing are easily achieved in the heavy duty pans. Cast iron pans release small amounts of iron into the food, with the benefit of adding that mineral to the diet if used on a regular basis. The 700 year history of the handmade Columbian clay cookware called Barro Negro (see Resources) bears witness to its durability and suitability for cooking food. The variously shaped pots may be used on direct heat or in the oven.

Black Herbs – Richter’s Herbs (see Resources) lists 8 purple basil varieties including Dark Purple Basil, along with some newer cultivars like Rosie Basil and Osmin Basil, which is the darkest of all the purple basils. Basil has been used to relieve indigestion, nervous tension, stress and tension headaches; the purple varieties may also contain antioxidant anthocyanins.

In the sage family, there are several types with purple leaves: ‘Burgundy Bliss’ and ‘Purple Knockout’ as well as Purple Volcano Sage. Salvia lyrata or ‘Purple Volcano’ is known as Cancerweed and has been used by medicinal herbalists to treat cancer. Native Americans used the root of Salvia lyrataas a salve for sores and the whole plant as a tea for colds and coughs.
Aged, fermented black garlic (see Resources) is higher in antioxidants than raw garlic and has most of the cancer-fighting compounds.

Black Rice – We now have access to the once ‘forbidden,’ highly treasured and protected black rice of China’s Emperors, a rice high in antioxidants, iron and amino acids. Dr. Zhimin Xu, associate professor of food science at Louisiana State University, reports that a spoonful of black rice bran contains more health-promoting anthocyanin antioxidants than are found in the same amount of blueberries. Red, black, mahogany, short brown and black Thai jasmine rice are some of the ‘new’ rice varieties available in health food stores and the organic sections of some supermarkets. (See Resources)

Black Beans, Soybeans, and Lentils – Black ‘Turtle’ beans, ‘Beluga’ lentils, and black soybeans are some of the inky legumes widely available now. Black Soybeans have all the nutrition of yellow soybeans including the isoflavone nutrients Genistein, Daidzein, and Glycetein, which may help to protect against certain forms of cancer and ease symptoms of menopause. Soybeans are unique among beans because they provide naturally occurring unsaturated vegetable fat. They also provide a ‘complete’ protein with a balance of essential amino acids. Black Soybeans provide calcium, B vitamins, and are a good source of vitamin A, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc and they may contain a higher amount of antioxidants. (Ed note: Choose organic soybeans only, since conventional soybeans are genetically modified. Fermented soybean products such as miso and tempeh are the most easily digested.)

Black Sweeteners – include blackstrap molasses (sugar cane by-product), sorghum (cereal grain originating in Mesopotamian region), brown rice syrup, buckwheat honey and maple syrup. While the nutrients in each sweetener vary, all of the dark sweeteners contain significant amounts of a variety of health-promoting minerals and are far superior to sugar. Blackstrap molasses is noted for iron and calcium while sorghum is high in phosphorus and has small amounts of protein. According to Science Daily (see Resources), buckwheat honey scored 20 times higher in antioxidants than light honey.

Black Tea – Both green and black tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) contain a powerful anticancer polyphenol group of ingredients called catechins. But because black tea is fermented, and therefore oxidized, it was thought that only green tea held the key to cancer prevention. Now research has shown that the process of fermenting the green leaves actually produces some unique antioxidants not found in green tea, making black tea just as high in antioxidants as the celebrated thé vert.

Dark Chocolate – It is wise to indulge in one small square (1/2 oz or 15 g) of the best quality dark chocolate every day. This is because chocolate that is 70% cocoa or higher is rich in magnesium, antioxidants for anti-aging, as well as flavonoids that prevent clogged arteries and lower blood pressure.

Use fresh blueberries when available and dried at other times of the year. (Makes 4 servings.)


  • 4 Tbsp avocado oil, divided
  • ½ red onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tsp blackstrap molasses
  • 1 clove black garlic, finely chopped
  • 3 cups cooked wild rice or a combination of wild rice and mahogany or brown rice
  • ½ cup cooked beluga or brown lentils
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced prunes
  • ¼ cup blackberries or blueberries
  • Hawaiian Hiwa Kai black sea salt
  • black pepper

1) In a cast-iron skillet, heat 2 Tbsp oil over medium-high heat. Sauté onion for about 5 minutes or until soft. Stir in remaining oil, vinegar, molasses and black garlic. Set aside and let cool.

2) In a bowl, combine wild rice, lentils, prunes and blackberries and toss with onion mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

In Eastern Canada, we don’t see much black cod since it’s a sub-Antarctic species, although it may be available in specialty fishmongers’ shops. While the skin is actually black, the velvet-flakes of flesh are creamy white when cooked, so any local firm fish such as cod or whitefish or sea bass will work in this recipe. The Lundberg Black Japonica™ is a mixture of short grain black rice and medium grain mahogany rice and its flavour is outstanding. Use short grain red or brown rice if Lundberg is not available.  (Makes 4 to 6 servings.)


  • 2 Tbsp avocado oil
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves black garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup Lundberg Black Japonica™ rice
  • 1 Tbsp red miso
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 cups rice milk
  • 3 cups diced purple or sweet potatoes
  • 1 filet (2 lb) black cod or other firm fish
  • ½ cup chopped fresh purple basil

1) In a cast-iron or barro negro Dutch oven, heat oil. Sauté onion and celery for 5 to 7 minutes or until soft. Add black garlic, rice and miso and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute.

2) Stir in stock, cover and simmer for 40 minutes or until rice is tender.

3) Add rice milk and bring to a simmer. Stir in potatoes, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cod and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork and potatoes are tender. Garnish with basil.

Tuscan kale is dark green and very flavourful. Use black caviar or small French green lentils; they retain their shape and provide a nice contrast with the brown rice. Lentils are high in protein and iron and are fat-free. Recipe adapted from Everyday Flexitarian by Nettie Cronish and Pat Crocker (Whitecap Books). (Makes 4 servings)


  • 5 cups vegetable stock or water, divided
  • 1 cup brown rice, rinsed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup chopped, fresh, flat leaf parsley
  • 2 cups lentils, rinsed
  • ¼ cup avocado oil
  • 1 cup thinly sliced red onions
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup thinly sliced crimini mushrooms
  • 2 cups chopped Tuscan kale
  • ½ cup chopped fresh opal basil
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1) Bring 2 cups (500 mL) of the stock to a boil over high heat. Stir in rice, bay leaves and parsley. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes, or until rice is tender. Stir with a fork and set aside.

2) Meanwhile combine lentils and remaining stock in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain in a colander, rinse with cool water and set aside.

3) Heat oil in a large skillet or saucepan, over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes or until soft. Add garlic, mushrooms and salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes or until mushrooms are soft and release their liquids.

4) Add kale to skillet and cook, stirring and tossing for 3 to 5 minutes or until wilted. If the mixture seems too dry, add up to ¼ cup (60 mL) water. Stir in lentils and brown rice. Cook, stirring constantly for 1 to 3 minutes or until heated through. Stir basil and Parmesan cheese into the mixture or use as a garnish on top.

(Makes 4 cups)


  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 cup black, red or brown rice
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 apple, grated
  • 1 cup blackberries or blueberries
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh purple basil

1) In a saucepan, heat coconut milk until simmering. Stir in rice, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 25 to 20 minutes or until tender. Stir in maple syrup, apple, blackberries and basil. Serve warm or chilled.


Pat Crocker and her recipes look best in black. She uses cast iron skillets and grills along with her prized Barro Negro clay pots from Colombia (she owns two of them). She is a Culinary Herbalist, Home Economist and Healthy Food Writer. Photographer, lecturer and author of several award-winning books, Pat’s latest book (with co-author Nettie Cronish) Everyday Flexitarian is now available. Her other books including The Yogurt Bible, The Vegan Cook’s Bible, The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, The Juicing Bible and The Smoothies Bible, are available at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States. Write or e-mail Pat at 536 Mill Street, Neustadt, ON N0G 2M0, visit her blog:


Black Garlic –  Aged and fermented, black garlic resembles dried fruit in flavour and texture.
Canadian Wild Rice –  Manomin Canadian wild rice is harvested from lakes in northwestern Ontario. Far North wild rice,  is cultivated organic wild rice grown in Flin Flon, Manitoba.
Diabetes Care –  This site will search archives for journal content on vinegar.
Lundberg Rice – Family-operated rice farm producing several different black rice blends including the ‘Lundberg Wild Blend’ with long and short brown rice, Wehani®, Black Japonica®, and wild rice.
Richter’s Herbs –  Located in Goodwood ON, one of the largest selections of herbs in Canada; you can visit the greenhouse to purchase plants or use their online catalogue.
Rube’s Rice Shop – With the largest selection of rice and legumes from around the world, this shop has more than rice. St. Lawrence Market, lower level (Toronto)
Science Daily –  Use the search tool to look up Dark Honey, for the July 1998 study, Dark Honey Has More Illness-Fighting Agents Than Light Honey.
Selsi Salts – https://www.selsisea  Located on the lower level of the St. Lawrence Market, Selsi offers a variety of gourmet salts and peppers from around the world. The Hawaiian Hiwa Kai salt is solar-evaporated sea water, which is combined with activated charcoal in black lava pans.
Williams-Sonoma –  The upscale cookware store sells Barro Negro clay cookware under the name ‘La Chamba’.

Reading List

Dr. James Joseph, Daniel A. Nadeau and Anne Underwood. The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health. New York: New York: Hyperion; 2002.
Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. Gloucester, Mass: Fair Winds Press; 2007.

Write a Comment

view all comments