Bioactive Compounds Series | Anthocyanins, What's the deal?

Bioactive Compounds Series | Anthocyanins, What's the deal?

According to a paper published in the year 2009, bioactive compounds are essential and non-essential compounds that are present in small quantities in nature, especially in plant foods and certain other foods. They are a part of the food chain and human health is influenced by their consumption. Some examples of bioactive compounds are lycopene, anthocyanins, resveratrol, polysaccharides etc.

What is an Anthocyanin?

Anthocyanins are part of the greater than 6000 compounds of the flavonoid group of polyphenols phytochemicals that are predominantly found in honey, tea, wines, vegetables, fruits, nuts, cocoa, olive oil and cereals. Apart from anthocyanins, the other major flavonoids are flavones, flavanols, flavanones, isoflavones, and flavan-3-ols. Anthocyanins have been utilized for generations in folk medicine; however, their pharmacological properties have been isolated and extensively studied only recently.

What is its chemical structure?

Anthocyanins are present in the plants naturally as glycosides, in which a sugar is paired with an anthocyanidin molecule. That part of the pigment that is present free of sugar (generically referred to as aglycone) is termed as anthocyanidin 3.

Duration and magnitude of heating has a strong influence on the stability of anthocyanin. According to a study, it was found that high temperatures associated with pasteurization that is involved in processing blueberries into purees led to 43% loss in total anthocyanins in comparison to original levels present in fresh fruits. Studies have demonstrated destruction of anthocyanins during storage treatments. For instance, in one study it was found that greater than 50% of anthocyanins were lost after six months of storage in blueberries purees.

Anthocyanins and other phenolic compounds can be easily oxidized and therefore susceptible to oxidative degradation during various steps of storage and processing. In general, multiple factors are believed to affect the stability of anthocyanins in vegetables and fruits and their products during processing, preparation and storage including pH, light, temperature, oxygen, metal ions, enzymes and sugars.

Oxygen plays a key role in the degradation processes of anthocyanin. The presence of oxygen can increase the degradation of anthocyanins either through the action of oxidising enzymes and/or through a direct oxidative mechanism.

What foods are they found in?

Plant foods are a rich source of anthocyanins. They provide the blue-violet to bright red-orange colours to many vegetables and fruits. Anthocyanins are most abundantly found in berries (for instance, black currants, blueberries, strawberries, elderberries) and their juices and also in purple and red grapes, sweet cherries, red wine, black plums, eggplants, red cabbage, black currant and blood oranges. They are also found in found in honey, tea, wines, nuts, cocoa, olive oil and cereals.

What health benefits do they provide?

Based upon many cell-line studies, human clinical trials and animal models, it has been found that anthocyanins have anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory activity, obesity control, cardiovascular disease prevention and diabetes relieving properties, all of which are likely to be associated with their potent antioxidant property.

Visual Acuity

Visual Acuity is defined as sharpness of vision and is usually measured using the Snellen chart, in which the normal visual acuity is 20/20. Many studies have demonstrated a link between consumption of anthocyanins and improved visual acuity (Kramer 2004). In fact, according to several studies, anthocyanins enhance the regeneration of rhodopsin to improve visual acuity. Moreover, anthocyanins present in berries appear to benefit visual acuity in several ways by-improving vision at night by increased generation of retinal pigments, increasing circulation in the retinal capillaries, decreasing diabetic retinopathy and preventing or improving glaucoma, cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa. The greatest effects are found to be from the anthocyanins from black currant.

Cardiovascular health

The role of anthocyanins in preventing cardiovascular disease is strongly linked to protection from oxidative stress. Since, the involvement of endothelial dysfunction is found in the initiation and development of vascular disease; in one study four anthocyanins obtained from elderberries were incorporated into the cytosol and plasma lemma of endothelial cells to examine their protective roles directly.

In several studies links have been found between heart attack prevention and anthocyanin rich products. One study demonstrated that significant protection from heart attack was achieved after administering wine or grape juice. This was thought to be due to the anthocyanin present in these beverages (Renaud and others 1992; Strandberg and others 2007; Streppel and others 2009; Hansen-Krone and others 2011; Levantesi and others 2013).

Age-related Neurodegenerative disease

Anthocyanins have been found to modulate motor and cognitive function, to increase memory and to prevent age-related decline in neural function ((Tsuda 2012). According to investigations, this is likely due to the fact that anthocyanins are highly bioavailable in endothelial cells.


According to laboratory studies, in which a variety of cancer cells were used, indicated that anthocyanins act as antioxidants, prevent proliferation of cancer cells, activate detoxifying enzymes, cause death of cancer cells, have anti-inflammatory effects, inhibit the formation of new blood vessels, prevent invasion of cancer cells and induce differentiation.

Blood sugar control

Anthocyanins have been found to raise metabolism of blood sugar and according to studies they have a positive effect on production of abnormal collagen, which is a side effect of diabetes that leads to poor control of blood sugar. According to one study, they are effective in preventing diabetic retinopathy.

Weight loss

Research done on lab mice that were fed a high fat diet enriched with anthocyanins showed less weight gain than those mice that were not given anthocyanin enriched diet. Anthocyanin attenuates adipose dysfunction and act to prevent metabolic syndrome and obesity (Tsuda 2008).

Antimicrobial activity

In a recent study by Cisowska and others (2011), the antimicrobial activity of anthocyanins was reviewed extensively. Blueberry and bilberry extracts have been shown to have inhibitory effects on the growth of both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.

Immune system

According to J. Scott Smith, a professor of food chemistry at Kansas State University, anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants and they help boost the immunity of the body, prevent disease and maintain health.

Supplements with Anthocyanins

  • Bilberry: The Bilberry is a small purple/blue berry that is obtained from the Bilberry plant or Vaccinium Myrtillus. It is a shrub that has its origin in Northern and Central Europe, America and Northern Asia. The Bilberry plant produces both white flowers and fruit. It is a close relative of blueberry and both of them are a rich source of anthocyanins, which are potent anti-oxidizing agents. Due to the presence of high levels of antioxidants, Bilberry is beneficial for eye and vascular health by maintaining integrity of the vascular tissue and preventing oxidation of tissues.
  • Acai Berry: The Acai Berry plant belongs to the palm family and is endemic to Northern South America and Brazil. The Acai Plant thrives naturally in swamp and waterlogged environments, which are heavily shaded with low amount of light. Acai Berry is now viewed as a super food and promoted among health professionals. It is rich in anthocyanins; hence, has amazing anti-oxidant properties.
  • Grape Seed Extract: The grape is grown on the Vitis Vinifera plant that is found in the Mediterranean, some parts of Asia and Central Europe. The active ingredients are Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins (OPCs) and Grape Antioxidant Dietary Fibre (GADF). It is a potent antioxidant that is known for its ability to destroy free radicals and protect vascular and tissue health.


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