Americans on the lookout for novel flavors with hearty health benefits are going dark. Really dark. Ebony-colored foods such as black rice, black soy, and black vinegar — fashionable health foods in Asia — are appearing on Western plates, particularly in high-end restaurants. “The dark color has a mystique,” says chef Suzy Badaracco, a food-trends forecaster in Tualatin, Oregon. But the health benefits of richly hued foods are anything but mysterious.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, dark foods tonify the kidney meridian — or energy channel — and nourish the blood, and studies are uncovering numerous other benefits. For example, black soybeans contain high levels of polyphenols — antioxidant-like powerhouses that help fight heart disease by keeping LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidizing. Jet-black sesame seeds — often used in stir-fries and desserts — are higher in antioxidants than their lighter colored counterparts, and studies show that the anthocyanins that give nutty black rice its deep color show promise in preventing insulin resistance. Likewise, black moromi vinegar from Okinawa boasts 43 times more amino acids than apple cider vinegar and lends a smoky flavor to Asian dishes.

Interested in going to the dark side? Although many natural products stores offer organic black soybeans and black sesame seeds, you might need to visit an Asian market to find black vinegar and rice — often referred to as “forbidden” rice.

BY THE NUMBERS

CANCER AWARENESS
71 Percent of participants in the American Institute for Cancer Research's 2007 Facts Versus Fears Survey who correctly believe that pesticide residue contributes to cancer risk.
46 Percent who correctly believe that obesity contributes to cancer risk.
43 Percent who correctly believe that insufficient physical activity contributes to cancer risk.
6 Number of cancers linked to excess body fat (esophagus, endometrium, colon, kidney, rectum, and postmenopausal breast).