AskDefine | Define anthocyanin

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  1. Any of many water-soluble red to violet plant pigments related to the flavonoids.


Extensive Definition

Not to be confused with Anthocyanidin, their sugar free counterparts.
Anthocyanins (from Greek: (anthos) = flower + (kyanos) = blue) are water-soluble vacuolar pigments that may appear red, purple, or blue, according to pH. The pigment belongs to a class of molecules called flavonoids, which are synthesized via the phenylpropanoid pathway. Anthocyanins are synthesized by organisms in the plant kingdom, and have been observed to occur in all tissues of higher plants, including leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and fruits. Anthoxanthins are their clear, white to yellow plant pigment counterparts.


In flowers, bright reds and purples are adaptive for attracting pollinators. In fruits, the colorful skins also attract the attention of animals, which may eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. In photosynthetic tissues (such as leaves and sometimes stems), anthocyanins have been shown to act as a "sunscreen", protecting cells from high-light damage by absorbing blue-green and UV light, thereby protecting the tissues from photoinhibition, or high-light stress. This has been shown to occur in red juvenile leaves, autumn leaves, and broad-leaved evergreen leaves that turn red during the winter. It has also been proposed that red coloration of leaves may camouflage leaves from herbivores blind to red wavelengths, or signal unpalatability, since anthocyanin synthesis often coincides with synthesis of unpalatable phenolic compounds.
In addition to their role as light-attenuators, anthocyanins also act as powerful antioxidants. However, it is not clear whether anthocyanins can significantly contribute to scavenging of free-radicals produced through metabolic processes in leaves, since they are located in the vacuole, and thus, spatially separated from metabolic reactive oxygen species.


Anatomically, anthocyanins are found in the cell vacuole, mostly in flowers and fruits but also in leaves, stems, and roots. In these parts they are found predominantly in outer cell layers such as the epidermis and peripheral mesophyll cells.
Most frequent in nature are the glycosides of cyanidin, delphinidin, malvidin, pelargonidin, peonidin and petunidin. Roughly 2% of all hydrocarbons fixated in photosynthesis are converted into flavonoids and their derivatives such as the anthocyanins. There is no less than 109 tons of anthocyanins produced in nature per year. Not all land plants contain anthocyanin; in the Caryophyllales (including cactus, beets, and amaranth), they are replaced by betalains.
Plants rich in anthocyanins are Vaccinium species, such as blueberry, cranberry and bilberry, black raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, chokeberry, cherry, eggplant, black rice (forbidden rice), purple grape, red wine, red cabbage and violet petals. One hundred grams of ripe Marion blackberry, for example, contains 317 mg of anthocyanins (table). Anthocyanins are less abundant in banana, asparagus, pea, fennel, pear and potato.
The highest recorded amount appears to be specifically in the seed coat of black soybean (Glycine max L. Merr.) containing some 2,000 mg per 100 g and in skins and pulp of black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa L.) (table). However, the Amazonian palmberry, açaí, having about 320 mg per 100 g (of which cyanidin-3-glucoside is the most prevalent individual anthocyanin (approximately 10 mg per 100 g), is also a high-content source for which only a small fraction of total anthocyanins has been determined to date.
Nature and food science have produced various uncommon crops containing anthocyanins, including blue- or red-fleshed potatoes and purple or red broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and corn. Anthocyanins can also be found in naturally ripened olives, and are partly responsible for the purple color seen in Kalamata and Alfonso olives, although no studies to date have have quantified their amount.

Autumn leaf color

Many science text books incorrectly state that all autumn coloration (including red) is simply the result of breakdown of green chlorophyll, which unmasks the already-present orange, yellow, and red pigments (carotenoids, xanthophylls, and anthocyanins, respectively). While this is indeed the case for the carotenoids and xanthophylls (orange and yellow pigments), anthocyanins are not present until the leaf begins breaking down the chlorophyll, during which time the plant begins to synthesize the anthocyanin, presumably for photoprotection during nitrogen translocation.


Anthocyanidins: Flavylium cation derivatives

See Anthocyanidins article.

Anthocyanins: Glucosides of anthocyanidins

The anthocyanins, anthocyanidins with sugar group, are mostly 3-glucosides of the anthocyanidins. The anthocyanins are subdivided into the sugar-free anthocyanidin aglycones and the anthocyanin glycosides. As of 2003 more than 400 anthocyanins had been reported while more recent literature (early 2006), puts the number at more than 550 different anthocyanins. The difference in chemical structure that occurs in response to changes in pH is the reason why anthocyanins are often used as pH indicator, as they change from red in acids to blue in bases.


  1. Anthocyanin pigments are assembled like all other flavonoids from two different streams of chemical raw materials in the cell:
  2. These streams meet and are coupled together by the enzyme chalcone synthase (CHS), which forms an intermediate chalcone via a polyketide folding mechanism that is commonly found in plants.
  3. The chalcone is subsequently isomerized by the enzyme chalcone isomerase (CHI) to the prototype pigment naringenin.
  4. Naringenin is subsequently oxidized by enzymes such as flavanone hydroxylase (FHT or F3H), flavonoid 3' hydroxylase and flavonoid 3' 5'-hydroxylase.
  5. These oxidation products are further reduced by the enzyme dihydroflavonol 4-reductase (DFR) to the corresponding leucoanthocyanidins.
  6. It was believed that leucoanthocyanidins are the immediate precursors of the next enzyme, a dioxygenase referred to as anthocyanidin synthase (ANS) or leucoanthocyanidin dioxygenase (LDOX). It was recently shown however that flavan-3-ols, the products of leucoanthocyanidin reductase (LAR), are the true substrates of ANS/LDOX.
  7. The resulting, unstable anthocyanidins are further coupled to sugar molecules by enzymes like UDP-3-O-glucosyl transferase to yield the final relatively stable anthocyanins.
More than five enzymes are thus required to synthesize these pigments, each working in concert. Any even minor disruption in any of the mechanism of these enzymes by either genetic or environmental factors would halt anthocyanin production.

Potential food value

Anthocyanins are considered secondary metabolites as a food additive with E number 163.
Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants in vitro. This antioxidant property may be conserved even after the plant which produced the anthocyanin is consumed by another organism, possibly explaining why fruits and vegetables with colorful skins and pulp are considered nutritious. However, it has not yet been scientifically demonstrated that anthocyanins are beneficial to human health.


Richly concentrated as pigments in berries, anthocyanins were the topics of research presented at a 2007 symposium on health benefits that may result from berry consumption. Scientists provided laboratory evidence for potential health effects against
  • cancer
  • aging and neurological diseases
  • inflammation
  • diabetes
  • bacterial infections
Cancer research on anthocyanins is the most advanced, where black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis L.) preparations were first used to inhibit chemically induced cancer of the rat esophagus by 30-60% and of the colon by up to 80%. Effective at both the initiation and promotion/progression stages of tumor development, black raspberries are a practical research tool and a promising therapeutic source, as they contain the richest contents of anthocyanins among native North American Rubus berries.
Work on laboratory cancer models has shown that black raspberry anthocyanins inhibit promotion and progression of tumor cells by
  1. stalling growth of pre-malignant cells
  2. accelerating the rate of cell turnover, called apoptosis, effectively making the cancer cells die faster
  3. reducing inflammatory mediators that initiate tumor onset
  4. inhibiting growth of new blood vessels that nourish tumors, a process called angiogenesis
  5. minimizing cancer-induced DNA damage.
On a molecular level, berry anthocyanins were shown to turn off genes involved with proliferation, apoptosis, inflammation and angiogenesis.
In 2007, black raspberry studies entered the next pivotal level of research – the human clinical trial – for which several approved studies are underway to examine anti-cancer effects of black raspberries and cranberries on tumors in the esophagus, prostate and colon.


  • Andersen, O.M. Flavonoids: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Applications. CRC Press, Boca Raton FL 2006.
anthocyanin in Tosk Albanian: Anthocyane
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