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Posted on: April 5th, 2022

The diversity of research into nutraceuticals has broadened over the past several decades. This includes studying aspects of nutrition that may not seem to affect overall health at first glance. A recent example of this is the study of anthocyanins and their effects on cardiovascular and metabolic health.

What are Anthocyanins?

In short, anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments found in plants. Anthocyanins are part of the flavonoid class of molecules synthesized in plant cells from amino acids. Anthocyanins in plant cells are often attached to sugars, which allows them to be water-soluble, and are the colorful compounds, providing for the pigments of plants, like the blue of blueberries and concord grapes, and the red of cranberries.

The primary function of anthocyanins in food production has been coloration.  As natural compounds, anthocyanins have been consumed as part of many foods and used traditionally in foods and beverages In 2013, however, an EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) panel determined that isolated anthocyanins intended to be used as a non-toxic food colorant for foods that normally don’t have anthocyanins, more research on safety is needed. While isolated anthocyanins are not specifically listed as approved food colorants in the US, they are not specifically listed as dangerous either. 

The lack of toxicology reports and other safety studies is not unusual for natural compounds that have been consumed in foods, but then are isolated and separated from the food,  When new approaches and technologies allow for separating, isolating, and concentrating food compounds are available, safety assessments need to be updated for these higher concentrations and different types of usages.  This, along with the in vitro data on antioxidant and other possible health-promoting properties of anthocyanins has led to heightened interest and more studies being conducted over the past decade. As of this writing (April 2022), there are no health claims regarding anthocyanins with either the FDA or the EFSA.

Anthocyanin & Health

Recent studies suggest an association between consuming foods high in anthocyanins and several health conditions, including cardiovascular risks, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic health.

Research into how anthocyanins may affect health has primarily focused on the absorption of anthocyanin into the body. Anthocyanin absorption studies have looked closely at both the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities.

Many anthocyanins are naturally occurring in foods like blueberries, pomegranates, and strawberries. Increased anthocyanin intake (via food or supplementation) has shown quantifiable effects on some key factors in health conditions.

Anthocyanin & Inflammation

Inflammation increases endothelial permeability, which affects the heart and blood vessels. This leads to a short-term decrease in the protective barrier function, and not an issue when occurring in the short-term but can be damaging in chronic cases. Chronic inflammation can narrow arteries, lead to the accumulation of fat, and promote conditions like atherosclerosis.

A high intake of anthocyanins is proposed to promote inflammatory reactions that affect endothelial permeability. However, ‘normal’ intake of anthocyanins (~80mg/day) has been shown to possibly be beneficial to at-risk populations concerning heart disease. Therefore, the amount of consumption of anthocyanins matters.  This is why safety needs to be reviewed when these compounds are isolated and concentrated, while they are known to be safe at regular levels found in foods and beverages. 

Inflammation is a reaction in the body that has to be in balance.  That is, it is a necessary response to insults like injury or damage to tissues, and short-term inflammation is part of the healing response.  However, if inflammation doesn’t resolve, or gets turned off, then instead of helping with healing, it can lead to further damage.  Current studies suggest that the doses and timeframe are the two most important factors in determining when and how anthocyanins support a healthy inflammatory response compared to the health risk from an unbalanced inflammation regulation.

Anthocyanin & Antioxidant Properties

The majority of studies focusing on anthocyanins have looked at their antioxidant properties in vitro.

Research into the antioxidant properties has shown a correlation between intake and the effects of certain enzymes. Some antioxidant enzyme counts were found to increase while others were found to decrease.

Like inflammation research and research with anthocyanin, dose and timeframe are important in determining the health benefits vs. risks of many natural, food-based components. 

The Future of Anthocyanins & Health

Data on anthocyanins have shown quantifiable effects on certain health risk factors in humans. Ongoing and future studies are increasingly looking at consistency–both in doses and time. Dose size is particularly important for upcoming research, as scientists look for effective levels to use in specific tests. 

Understanding the health benefits vs. risks of high levels of isolated anthocyanin intake is still in progress, but research has shown just how important the antioxidant and inflammatory properties may be in promoting health as well as a potential risk when these components are used at high levels.

Research at Biofortis

Biofortis is dedicated to protecting consumer health throughout the world by delivering a wide range of testing and consultancy services to the food, supplement, and nutrition industries. Biofortis supports this mission in two ways—through clinical trials and sensory and consumer insights testing. We specialize in clinical research targeting foods, ingredients, and dietary supplements that affect body structures, function, and overall health. Contact us with any clinical trial or scientific consulting needs.

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