If you’ve ever eaten a beet-filled meal you probably remember the pink urine and unsettlingly red stool you pass a bit later. The culprit is a molecule called beetroot red, and it’s used as a natural food dye in many products including candies, canned soups, and sausages (yikes). Previously I said that anthocyanins and carotenoids are the most-used vegetable-based pigments in processed foods. Beetroot red falls into neither of those categories.
Given soy’s ubiquity in our lives and diets, I thought it would be instructive to explore how those fields of beans become nondescript additives creeping into so much of our Western diet. “Processed foods” is a bit of a black box but by looking at this one food source I can show you that it actually supports massive swaths of our agricultural and food systems, and a bit of what this means for our diet.
What’s in your food? Most people are aware of the macronutrient classes protein, fat, and carbs, as well as the essential micronutrients – vitamins and minerals. Additionally, water and fiber don’t fit into either category. But there’s long been much excitement over phytochemicals, the organic compounds produced by plants that are not considered vitamins because they are nonessential. These include polyphenols like resveratrol, which is toxic to cancer cells and augments metabolism and extends lifespan in mice. Frustratingly, observations of resveratrol’s beneficial effects repeatedly fail to replicate in humans. This conundrum is referred to as the ‘resveratrol paradox’, and reflects our as-yet incomplete understanding of how we could activate resveratrol’s mechanism in vivo with other chemical agents. But I’m not talking about resveratrol today; instead I’ll discuss one of the most abundant classes of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, namely, anthocyanins.