With the new season of the prison drama Orange Is the New Black set to debut this week, it seems like a good time to celebrate all things orange. But that’s not necessarily a nod to neon-orange processed food — like crunchy cheese curls — or even prison garb, for that matter. This is about the tasty orange stuff that grows on trees and plants, all of which is uniquely good for us.
“The reality is various types of orange produce are all very similar nutritionally,” says Mary Howley Ryan, MS, RDN, owner of Beyond Broccoli Nutritional Counseling, in Jackson, Wyo. “The carotenoids — especially beta-carotene that turns into vitamin A — not only give them their beautiful color but also provide big health benefits.” That said, there are literally hundreds of different carotenoid compounds to be found in orange fruits and vegetables, so it pays to try them all.
The antioxidant beta-carotene is found in such plentiful quantities in carrots that it was actually named after the vegetable. This nutrient is also widely studied — research in the Netherlands found that those who had higher levels of carrot intake had significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease. And other compounds called polyacetylenes found in carrots have more recently been shown to inhibit growth of colon cancer cells in mice.
This tropical fruit is an excellent source of antioxidant vitamins A and C as well as potassium and vitamin K. “It also packs three grams of fiber in a one-cup serving and contains more cancer-protective polyphenols than most other tropical fruits,” Ryan says.
While you may have to wait for fall to enjoy fresh pumpkins, canned varieties (as well as pumpkin seeds) are nutritious options all year round. The flesh is high in fiber and a rich source of vitamin A as well as the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin — which are particularly important for eye health because they may protect against macular degeneration. The seeds contain phytosterols that may help lower cholesterol.
In addition to the usual orange benefits (like vitamins A and C and a variety of carotenoids), peaches also contain beneficial phenolic compounds similar to those found in grapes and red wine. But don’t peel those peaches: “Most of the vitamin C, beta-carotene and phenol are in the skin,” Ryan says.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.