At this point, marijuana is inexorably connected to the color green. But in reality, cannabis flower comes in a rainbow of colors. Red, white, orange, purple, black—these hues don’t merely make for prettier buds. They can also indicate the phytochemical makeup of a strain and might even imply associated health benefits.
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemicals in plants that give them distinct colors, scents and flavors. When eaten, they are known to play an active role in a person’s health. But not much is known about the health benefits—if any—of inhaling different phytochemicals or smoke from burning the plants that contain them. Phytochemicals are broken up into a number of classes, including chlorophyll, carotenoids, lycopenes, anthoxanthins and anthocyanins.
As with plants of all stripes, cannabis’ predominant green coloring comes from the phytochemical chlorophyll. It’s a photosynthetic pigment that uses energy from light to transfer electrons from water to carbon dioxide, producing sugars that the plant uses for fuel. Ingesting it for health reasons has become a common practice over the past few decades. The ever-popular wheatgrass shot is largely made up of the chemical.
Chlorophyll proponents have touted the chemical as a wonder drug (sound familiar?) capable of curing or treating a number of diseases—including cancer—detoxifying the body and even fixing bad breath. But the chemical hasn’t really been researched all that deeply (heard that before?), and most of these associations arise from anecdotal evidence (déjà vu?).
Carotenoids are responsible for the yellows and oranges found in cannabis buds. These phytochemicals can be found in some bacteria as well as plants. When digested with fats, carotenoids act as antioxidants in the human body.
Lycopenes are specific carotenoids that give marijuana (and plants like the tomato) its red hue. Consuming lycopene has been associated with the prevention of prostate cancer, but little research on that claim has been published.
Anthoxanthins give cannabis creamy and white colors. We find them in cauliflower, onions, white potatoes and turnips. Eating foods with anthoxanthins is said to aid in reducing the risk of stroke and counteracting inflammation.
Anthocyanins are probably the coolest cannabis phytochemicals, because they produce those rich, beautiful purples and blues that are so sought after. Food sources for anthocyanins include berries, red onions, kidney beans, pomegranates and grapes. It’s been suggested that these foods help combat heart disease and cancer.
As we said earlier: It’s unclear whether smoking these substances even has an effect on humans, but it seems unlikely. Eating edibles made from plants containing the chemicals also seems like a poor source. In “The Effect of Cooking on the Phytochemical Content of Vegetables,” researchers at the University of Naples Federico II found that thermal degradation of the chemicals occurred while cooking, which lowered their concentration, while a “a matrix softening effect” increased the extractability of phytochemicals and gave them a “higher concentration with respect to the raw material.” Their conclusion was that steamed vegetables retained more of their phytochemical concentrations than those cooked by other methods.
So, unless you’re eating cannabis raw or steaming it—both methods sound terrible—you probably aren’t going to see any effects from the phytochemicals in cannabis. But they sure do make our plants look pretty.