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May 6, 2013

In Nutrition, Can We “See” What Is Good for Us?

Stephen Barnes, PhD, Jeevan Prasain, PhD, Helen Kim, PhD

Abstract

The selection of foods to eat is a complex interplay of vision, taste, smell, and texture. In addition to micro- and macronutrients, plant-based foods also contain several classes of phytochemicals. In many cases, the phytochemicals account for the various colors of foods. Although aesthetically pleasing, the color of foods may mislead consumers as to their phytochemical content, which is particularly true with regard to polyphenols. Polyphenols are a broad class of compounds with antioxidant and other health benefits. Human vision is limited to a small window (390–765 nm) of the electromagnetic spectrum. Many important phytochemicals (e.g., vitamin C) have no absorbance in this range. Therefore, the human eye cannot directly judge the vitamin C content of foods. Being able to see in the ultraviolet range allows bees to locate the pollen-rich region of flowers, whereas pit vipers locate their prey by being able to “see” them in the infrared range. Assessing the impact of phytochemicals on human health depends on several factors. Colorless phytochemicals in unprocessed foods may be lost during the cooking process because no visual guide exists to ensure their retention. The molecular structures of phytochemicals influence the extent to which they are altered by cooking processes and the methods by which they are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Extensive metabolism by phase I/II enzymes and by the gut microbiome may also create compounds that the eye is never allowed to appreciate.

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References

  1. Stephen Barnes, Jeevan Prasain, Helen Kim, In Nutrition, Can We “See” What Is Good for Us?, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2013, Pages 327S–334S, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.112.003558
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