The bright red pigmentation in edible, anthocyanin-rich fruits and vegetables is a definite bonus in terms of market appeal. As a result, breeders have worked consistently to intensify anthocyanin levels or alter composition in crops. The positive links between consumption of crops and food products containing natural anthocyanin pigments, and reduced incidence of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases, have been established anecdotally and more recently validated in research trials including those from our laboratory group. The protective events, most attributed to the potent antioxidant properties of anthocyanin pigments and associated phytochemicals, place anthocyanin-rich crops in the category of “Functional Foods,” yielding health protection unrelated to nutritional value. In vitro bioactivity assays have identified components from these crops capable of blocking the initiation stages of carcinogenesis, while a completely separate class of phytochemicals and sets of assays establish efficacy against the promotion stages of tumorigenesis. Animal models for carcinogen-induced damage to mammary gland and skin DNA subsequently demonstrate the in vivo potency of the same target compounds. Similarly, to establish cardioprotective properties, demonstrations of ability to inhibit platelet aggregation, relax vascular muscle tissue, and reduce total serum cholesterol are demonstrated in a series of in vitro assays, and via animal models and human studies. While activity-directed fractionations seek to identify specific responsible compounds, it is increasingly evident that bioactivity is drastically attenuated once specific compounds are isolated, and the synergistic interaction of associated phytochemicals in horticultural crops is prerequisite to realizing health benefits. These complications have slowed the establishment of effective minimum “dosages,” but all the more strongly promote consumption of the crops.
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