When we think of anthocyanins—the flavonoid compounds that give red purple and blue colors to fruits and vegetables the usual suspects come to mind first: blueberries blackberries raspberries red onions and beets. Another plant food whose purple color indicates a high anthocyanin content but which is often left out of discussions about the benefits thereof is eggplant. Although eggplant is typically considered a vegetable botanically speaking it is technically a fruit! And while we might automatically associate eggplant as being paired with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese parmigiana style eggplant is actually native to India and Asia where it was cultivated for thousands of years before it ever graced the tables of Italian trattorias.
Eggplant comes in a staggering variety of shapes sizes and colors but the one North American consumers are most familiar with is the globe eggplant—a relatively large heavy specimen the skin of which is dark purple almost black. Most supermarkets carry only this particular kind but many others are available at farmers’ markets and Asian grocery stores. Japanese eggplant is longer thinner and lighter in color and may also be somewhat curved. Chinese eggplant more closely resembles the Japanese variety than the globes but they are even lighter purple and tend to be straighter. There are even white eggplants varieties that are round green and striped and the eye-catching graffiti eggplant which has an enticing purple and white striped skin. The smaller thinner and oblong varieties tend to have fewer seeds and be slightly less bitter than the common globes.
With so many distinctive varieties it’s not surprising that eggplant is employed in many different ethnic cuisines. There’s baba ganoush the pureed eggplant spread popular in Middle Eastern cooking; grilled eggplant to round out a platter of Greek mezze; and seared Chinese eggplant with spicy garlic ginger and soy sauce.
If eggplant’s prominence in these delicious dishes isn’t enough to spark an interest in putting it in your cart at the store more often its antioxidant benefits may make it a worthwhile addition to your culinary repertoire. Anthocyanins extracted from eggplant skin have been shown to be potent oxygen radical scavengers and to protect against lipid peroxidation. Nasunin one particular anthocyanin may have anti-angiogenic properties and may also protect cells from DNA damage. Many eggplant recipes call for peeling the eggplant since the skins tend to be bitter and may give a finished dish a chunkier texture than is desired. Remember though that these protective compounds are concentrated in the peel. (They are after all what gives the eggplant its bold color.)
While eggplant’s anthocyanin and antioxidant content make this vegetable a welcome addition to meals truth be told it’s not exactly bursting with nutrients. The only thing it has going for it in any appreciable quantity is manganese: 100g of eggplant provides 13% of the daily value for this mineral. But a lack of micronutrients shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Eggplant is extremely low in calories and carbohydrates and is high in fiber. An entire pound of eggplant comes in at around 100 calories meaning that you could fill up on generous helpings of this high water content vegetable without racking up calories. With just 6g of total carbohydrate—3g of which are fiber—the glycemic load of eggplant is 1—practically negligible. These properties help eggplant fit in perfectly with an eclectic mix of dietary approaches including low-carb Paleo vegetarian Mediterranean and more. However individuals with sensitivity to nightshade vegetables (a category that includes eggplant tomatoes white potatoes and all peppers) might do well to avoid eggplant. (Nightshades are known to exacerbate the signs and symptoms of arthritis.) And the fact that eggplant has such a mild flavor of its own means that it pairs well with other ingredients which make it a kind of blank canvas to use as a base for more nutrient-dense and health-promoting items such as garlic olive oil tomatoes lamb and perhaps some feta cheese.