When it comes to healthy eating, we're told to choose our foods by colour. The darker and brighter the colour, the more nutrients and phytochemicals they have.
For many foods that's good advice. Brown bread has more vitamins and fibre than white bread. Spinach, carrots and other brightly coloured vegetables offer more beta carotene than celery, cucumbers and other pale looking produce.
But dark versus light or brown versus white isn't always a straightforward choice. In some cases, dark coloured foods don't offer more nutrients than their white counterparts.
Consider raisins. Contrary to popular belief, dark raisins are not more nutritious than lightly coloured golden raisins. Both types of raisins are made from green grapes. The difference is in the drying process. When the grapes are sun-dried after harvesting, they become darkly coloured raisins. Golden raisins are mechanically dried and treated with sulphur dioxide to retain their light colour. Nutrient-wise, there's no difference.
Can you pick which of the following foods deliver the most nutrition?
Brown eggs vs. white eggs
In this case brown does not mean more nutritious. Egg shell colour does not affect the nutrients – or quality or flavour – of an egg. Egg shell colour depends upon the breed of the hen. White shell eggs in Canada come from Leghorn hens while brown shell eggs are produced by Rhode Island Red breed hens. White or brown, one large egg provides 76 calories, five grams of fat, 1.6 grams of saturated fat and 193 milligrams of cholesterol.
Brown sugar vs. white sugar
Brown isn't better when it comes to sugar either. Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added. The amount of molasses added during processing results in sugar that's light to dark brown. While molasses is a good source of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, the trace amount that ends up in a teaspoon of brown sugar is negligible.
Whole wheat pasta vs. white Smart pasta
In this case, brown is better for you. But it's hard to know that after reading their respective nutrition labels. Both types of pasta have eight grams of fibre a serving. And both are equally a good source of iron and B vitamins because they're enriched.
But unlike Catelli's Smart pasta, whole wheat pasta is made from 100-per-cent whole grain semolina flour. Catelli's Smart pasta gets its fibre boost from oat hull fibre and inulin, a carbohydrate extracted from chicory root. But isolated fibres such as inulin may not have the same health benefits of intact fibres in whole grains. Studies find that whole grains from cereals, breads and other grains are protective from heart disease and diabetes. The evidence for inulin is sparse.
Dark poultry meat vs. white poultry meat
It's true that breast meat has fewer calories and fat than meat from the leg and thigh. Three ounces of roasted skinless poultry breast has 132 calories and two grams of fat; the same amount of roasted thigh meat without skin has 140 calories and six grams of fat.
But if you're looking for more nutrients, dark meat is a better choice. Ounce for ounce, dark meat has more iron, zinc, copper, manganese, folate and riboflavin than breast meat. That said, eating poultry for protein is generally a good choice regardless of whether you choose light or dark meat.
Pumpernickel bread vs. white bread
It's easy to assume that dark pumpernickel bread is more nutritious than white bread. But that's not always true.
If you read the ingredient list on packages of pumpernickel bread, you'll find that many list the first ingredient – the bulk of the flour – as white wheat flour followed by rye flour. Molasses or caramel may also be added for colouring. Nutritionally speaking, these fluffy versions of traditional dense whole grain pumpernickel bread aren't much different than white bread.
Choose 100-per-cent whole grain pumpernickel and rye breads. Whole rye flour, rye meal and rye flakes indicate whole grains. Traditional pumpernickel and rye breads are made with a sourdough starter, rather than yeast, to aid in rising. The acid produced from the starter, combined with the fibre in whole grain rye, give these breads a low glycemic index, which means they are digested slowly and, as a result, don't spike blood sugar and insulin levels.
Extra virgin olive oil vs. light olive oil
In the case of extra virgin olive oil, the darker green colour means more antioxidants and other phytochemicals. That's because this grade of olive oil is not refined; the oil is extracted from olives using minimal heat and no chemicals. Light olive oil has been highly refined by chemicals and heat to yield a mild flavour. You still end up with a cooking oil rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fat, but it has lost its protective compounds.
Keep in mind that "light" refers only to the colour and flavour of the oil; it has nothing to do with the amount of fat or calories. Per tablespoon, both light and extra virgin olive oils have 14 grams of fat and 120 calories.
Orange vs. apple
Don't discount apples because of their white flesh. Sure they don't have nearly as much vitamin C as an orange, but they have something oranges don't: quercetin, an antioxidant thought to help guard against stroke.
Earlier this fall, a study of 20,069 adults linked a higher intake of white coloured fruits and vegetables – especially apples and pears – with a significantly lower risk of stroke. The risk of stroke was not affected by eating orange/yellow fruits, which were mostly citrus fruits.
Even so, there's no such thing as an unhealthy fruit, or vegetable, for that matter. Aim to get at least seven servings each day to boost your intake of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. In this case, white counts too.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.