What Are Anthocyanins?

Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments. These molecules are found in a wide range of edible plants, and also make an appearance in some types of cannabis. They constitute the largest group of natural water-soluble pigments, with over 635 identified in nature to date.

Aside from their stunning colours, anthocyanins display some impressive therapeutic potential. Cell studies, animal research, and even human clinical trials suggest that these molecules could play a role in disease prevention and symptom management.

Check out the guide below to discover where to find anthocyanins and what the research says about this interesting family of chemicals.

Colour

As pigments, anthocyanins are responsible for the brilliant colours of red, purple, and blue found in many species of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Any time you see leaves, fruits, and berries displaying these bright colours, you can be sure that anthocyanins are at work.

These molecules are also responsible for purple-coloured cannabis flowers. That’s right; this isn’t the result of Photoshop trickery. Some strains feature genetics that cause them to develop a high anthocyanin count during the late flowering stage. You can add anthocyanins to the long list of beneficial constituents found in the plant.

The very word “anthocyanin” hints towards their impressive appearance. The title stems from two Greek words: “ánthos”, meaning flower, and “kyanó”, meaning dark blue.

Anthocyanins also play an industrial role as natural food colourings, in some cases replacing potentially harmful synthetic dyes.

These molecules don’t just exist to please the human eye. They play an important botanical role. Plants harness their striking and appealing visuals to attract curious animals that go on to disperse their seeds. This colourful strategy leads to an increase in germination success.

Also found in

If you’re curious as to which foods are high in anthocyanins, think of some of the most vibrant foods you know.

Anthocyanins exist in considerably high concentrations in black raspberries, black currants, blueberries, blackberries, red cabbage, black plums, red radish, and red raspberries.

You’ll also find anthocyanins in any red to purplish-blue leafy vegetables, roots, and grains.

Supporting research

Current research suggests that anthocyanins could play an important role in preventing and managing some health conditions. The phytochemicals produce the following effects:

• Antioxidant
• Anti-inflammatory
• Anticarcinogenic
• May prevent cardiovascular disease
• Obesity control

Compared to other constituents within the cannabis plant—namely cannabinoids and terpenes—anthocyanins have undergone more rigorous testing. This includes preclinical and human clinical trials.

Let’s explore some of the research in-depth.

Antioxidant effects

Cell and animal studies have demonstrated the antioxidant effect of anthocyanins. Antioxidants are important dietary molecules that help to neutralise free radicals—rogue molecules that can damage cells, proteins, and DNA.

Over time, this oxidative damage can contribute to cardiovascular disease, inflammation, skin ageing, and cancer.

Research published in the journal Agricultural and Food Chemistry tested the antioxidant activity of two anthocyanin molecules. Researchers found the chemicals to exhibit an antioxidant effect similar to vitamin E.

Further research conducted on human cells showed anthocyanins present in red wine to be capable of protecting human red blood cells against oxidative stress.

Anthocyanins have also demonstrated antioxidant effects in living animals (in vivo). A study in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine tested the antioxidant capacity of rats. The rodents received a vitamin E-depleted diet for a period of 12 weeks to increase their susceptibility to oxidative damage.

After the 12 weeks, researchers fed the rats an anthocyanin-rich extract. They found the anthocyanin diet to improve plasma antioxidant capacity significantly.

The researchers concluded that consumption of foods high in anthocyanins could contribute to overall antioxidant status. Including anthocyanins in a human diet could be particularly interesting in populations that typically experience low levels of vitamin E.

Anti-inflammatory effects

Anthocyanins may also tackle inflammation in other ways. The group of proteins known as cyclooxygenase (COX for short) help to feed inflammation by converting the fatty acid arachidonic acid into inflammatory lipids known as prostaglandins.

Interestingly, anthocyanins may put a stop to their activity, subsequently bringing down levels of inflammation.

Research published in the journal Phytomedicine tested the action of numerous anthocyanin extracts on COX. Using extracts from multiple types of cherry, blueberry, blackberry, cranberry, elderberry, raspberry, and strawberry, researchers found all of the extracts to be effective at inhibiting COX activity.

Those sourced from strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry were most effective, and comparable to the effects of ibuprofen.

A similar study tested blackberry anthocyanin extract on inflammation in rats. Impressively, the extract managed to reduce all measures of inflammation.

Anticarcinogenic

A large archive of scientific studies document the anticarcinogenic effects of anthocyanins. The molecules appear able to counter cancer on several fronts (in lab settings). So far, researchers have found them to inhibit cellular transformation, inhibit cell proliferation, and induce apoptosis of tumour cells—among other actions.

Cancer cells have uncontrolled cell cycles, a factor that sets them apart from healthy cells. Normal cells only multiply a certain amount of times. After a time, they will stop producing new cells and eventually die.

Cancer cells disobey this biological rule. They continue to proliferate without restriction, eventually developing into tumours. Evidence suggests that anthocyanins may be able to put an end to this uncontrolled multiplication.

Research published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer found anthocyanins to be capable of inhibiting the proliferation of cancer cells, without interrupting normal cells. They appear to achieve this effect by acting on specific signalling pathways that enable cancer cells to keep multiplying.

For example, berry anthocyanins act on three different pathways—β-catenin, Wnt, and Notch—to stop the growth and proliferation of human non-small-cell lung cancer cells.

Cancer cells also dodge destruction by avoiding the natural process of apoptosis, otherwise known as programmed cell death. The body successfully eliminates dysfunctional cells through apoptosis, but malignant cancer cells evade the mechanism.

Interestingly, anthocyanins may be able to trigger apoptosis in tumour cells. They achieve this by targeting the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) and the so-called “death receptor”.

Prevention of cardiovascular disease

Research suggests that the antioxidant effects of anthocyanins could help to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

More specifically, the family of molecules could protect against hardening of the arteries—a condition known as atherosclerosis. A danger on its own, the condition can also result in fatal occurrences such as heart attack and stroke.

The roots of atherosclerosis lie in low-density lipoprotein, the so-called “bad'' type of cholesterol. An excess intake of LDL can lead to plaque building on the artery walls. Over time, free radicals in the blood begin to oxidise LDL and contribute to atherosclerosis and heart disease.

However, the intake of dietary antioxidants such as anthocyanins might boost serum antioxidant levels and prevent the oxidation of LDL, protecting against the development of heart disease.

Obesity control

Anthocyanins may play an important role in addressing obesity—a condition that affects around 13% of the world population. Obesity involves an imbalance between energy intake and output, along with the buildup of adipose tissue (fat).

Anthocyanins may be able to help treat certain aspects of obesity through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, as well as by helping to decrease body weight and adipose mass.

Research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry tested the effects of purified anthocyanins on mice fed a high-fat diet. Researchers found the mice given anthocyanins to experience lower body weight gain and body fat than control mice. The researchers stated that feeding mice purified anthocyanins from blueberries or strawberries reduced obesity.

Several trials have demonstrated the effects of anthocyanins on obesity in humans, with mixed results.

One study gave overweight and obese subjects a gastrointestinal microbiome modulator (GIMM) that contained blueberry anthocyanins, among other ingredients. Within four weeks, the group that received the GIMM experienced less of a desire to eat than the placebo group.

In contrast, other research found the anthocyanin-rich purple carrot to produce no changes in body mass, sense of appetite, inflammation, or lipid metabolism.

Researchers in the field suggest that scientists need to develop modern cell and animal models in order to create more efficient human trials.

Safety and side effects

Anthocyanins are known to be largely safe. The phytonutrients have been consumed by animals and humans for millennia. No adverse effects have been identified from the consumption of anthocyanin-rich food.

Estimates suggest that citizens in the United States consume an average of 12.5mg of anthocyanins each day. Companies are permitted to use them as food colouring agents in many countries, and the toxicity of anthocyanin extracts is known to be very low.

The side effects of overconsumption remain unknown, and may only occur at extremely high levels.

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