What are Anthocyanins?
Anthocyanins are a group of water soluble pigments found in most types of plant. They are responsible for the bright blues, purples and reds found in many fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Anthocyanins have strong antioxidant properties, so foods containing these bright pigments are prized for their health effects. Many so called 'superfoods' have attracted this tag due to high anthocyanin levels.
Where do Anthocyanins Come From?
These molecules belong to a large and diverse family of plant chemicals called flavonoids, which includes a number of familiar compounds, like caffeine and epigallocatechin gallate, which is the main functional ingredient in green tea.
These molecules are known as secondary metabolites. They are not essential for plant growth, but the majority do serve beneficial functions.
Over 500 different varieties of Anthocyanin have been characterised and they can be found throughout plants in the roots, stems and leaves, but are generally most concentrated in the petals and fruits. Anthocyanins convey a number of advantages to the plant, including protection against UV damage, attracting pollinating species, and some provide defense against pathogens.
We are most likely to encounter anthrocyanins in brightly coloured foods, like berries, the skin of fruits like grapes and plums, red wine, and pigmented varieties of common foods including black rice, black soybean and purple corn.
The multiple benefits of anthocyanin consumption are generally attributable to the potent antioxidant properties of these pigments. These include anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic activity, a role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, obesity prevention, and the alleviation of diabetes symptoms (1).
Anthocyanins Benefits for Bodybuilding
Good health is the cornerstone of sporting success and muscular development, and the multiple health benefits of anthocyanins are just as relevant to bodybuilders and physique athletes as they are to anyone else.
Because of the demands they place on their bodies, bodybuilders and athletes need a lot more in the way of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Because the muscles are working so much harder, exercise produces an abundance of reactive oxygen species, known as free radicals. Free radicals are unstable and snatch electrons from proteins, DNA and lipids in an attempt to regain stability, which causes damage to cells. Free radical damage has not only been implicated in aging and disease, but it has also been implicated in inflammation and muscle damage.
There has been research showing that when athletes increase their antioxidant consumption, this leads to a reduction in markers of oxidative stress (2).
As a powerful and readily available source of antioxidants, anthocyanin rich food, and supplements containing anthocyanins play an important role in the nutritional regimes of many active people.
Anthocyanins Side Effects, Cons & Negatives
Anthocyanins are a very safe, natural source of antioxidants, and the consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods in sensible quantities is extremely unlikely to have any ill effect. Indeed, anthocyanins abound in fruit and vegetables, so it is very likely that the opposite is true.
One potential negative is that some people believe the benefits of anthocyanins to be overstated. Anthocyanins have shown powerful antioxidant activity in vitro, but experiments have shown that they have significantly lower bioavailability than other flavonoids (3). On top of poor absorption, some anthocyanins are thought to be unstable once in the body (4).
This does initially appear to be a downside, but as more research comes out, scientists are realising that the relationship between antioxidant consumption and free radical damage may not be as straightforward as first thought. General consensus used to be that anthocyanin molecules exerted their effects directly on free radicals, but there is mounting evidence that anthocyanins and other flavonoids reduce free radical damage indirectly, by signalling the expression of gene products involved in mitigating the effects of oxidative stress (5)
Although oxidative stress has been implicated in aging and disease, there is a school of thought that believes using antioxidants to curb these effects can the body from adapting to the effects of exercise (6). This is not yet a theory that has been well tested in humans.
Anthocyanin Dosage & Timing
There is no recommended or standard dosage of anthocyanins. The best and healthiest way to ensure you're obtaining sufficient dietary antioxidants is by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
For some people, getting their five a day can be a struggle. Finding the time to cook healthy meals, the sometimes prohibitive cost of anthocyanin-rich foods like berries, and a dislike for the taste of fruits and vegetables can prove significant barriers to the consumption of an antioxidant rich diet. The good news is that there are a number of superfood supplements on the market that pack in a big dose of anthocyanins alongside a whole host of essential vitamins and minerals.
Recent research has determined that the effects of antioxidants are maximised in the presence of other antioxidants, so make sure you stack your source of anthocyanins with other antioxidants and flavonoids, like vitamins C and E, and and green tea.
(1)He J, Giusti MM. Anthocyanins: natural colorants with health-promoting properties. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. 2010;1:163-87.
(2) Clarkson PM, Thompson HS. Antioxidants: what role do they play in physical activity and health? Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Aug;72(2 Suppl):637S-46S.
(3) Yang M, Koo SI, Song WO, Chun OK. Food matrix affecting anthocyanin bioavailability: review. Curr Med Chem. 2011;18(2):291-300.
(4) Hribar U, Ulrih NP. The metabolism of anthocyanins. Curr Drug Metab. 2014 Jan;15(1):3-13.
(5) Williams RJ, Spencer PE, Rice-Evans C. Flavonoids: antioxidants or signalling molecules? Volume 36, Issue 7, 1 April 2004, Pages 838–849
(6) Michael Ristow, Kim Zarse. How increased oxidative stress promotes longevity and metabolic health: The concept of mitochondrial hormesis (mitohormesis). Experimental Gerontology 45 (2010) 410–418