History of Five Color Food Combining

Part 1: Origins
Part 2: Eat a Rainbow for Heart Health

Part 1: Origins
Based on balance, not quantity, as few as 8-9 fruit and vegetables of five colors can supply a full range of the nutrients found in fruit and vegetables, for everyday nutrition.

Over 2,000 years ago the Chinese began classifying the plant kingdom according to five color groups 五色 Green, Red, Orange-Yellow-Caramel, White, Blue-Purple-Black, and five corresponding flavors 甜、酸、苦、辣、辛.

Known as the Five Phase Theory 五行, over the centuries thousands of herbs, vegetables and fruit have been recorded in materia medicas 本草 according to their color-flavor category 木、火、土 、金、水 and adapted by chefs in China, Japan and Korea to create delicious five color banquets, main dishes, and side dishes.

The five colors五色 aren’t like static colors in a painting, they are the power, force and energy 勢 of nature passing through the seasons 春 夏 土用 秋 冬, expressed most vividly in vegetables and fruit 菜 果.

“In times past everyone lived one hundred years without showing the normal signs of aging.” 皇帝內經 Neijing (ca 200-500 B.C.E.)

Going back to the beginnings of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the classic medical text Neijing established that food and medicine are identical, and that the reason for combining the five colors五色 is to generate an internal vital energy 五種流行之氣 for a healthy and long life 長壽果.

Capturing the five colors is the heart of Chinese,
Japanese and Korean food.

“Vegetables are indispensable at every meal”
Sun Simiao 孙思邈 (581-682 CE)

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) prominent physicians as well as chefs of the Imperial court were formulating five phase 五行 recipes to assist the body in maintaining continuous balance, for health and longevity.

During the Tang Dynasty five color fruit and vegetable combining had reached such a high level that Chinese 五行 techniques and recipes were exported to Japan and Korea to become part of their own plant-based cuisines.

In all three countries, chefs skilled in Five Color Food Combining techniques solved the problem of eating a sufficient amount of vegetables and fruit for daily health.

They did it by focusing on which vegetable-fruit combinations balanced the five colors, rather than how many vegetables and fruit were consumed. Their great discovery was that as few as 8 or 9 compatible vegetables and fruit of 5 colors can provide a full range of nutrients found in vegetables and fruit. In Western terms, just find the best team players.

Our own Take5 Colors Instant Vegetable Drink Mix© is formulated according to traditional five phase 五行 guidelines for continuous balance.
Except for one man, 五行 five color-flavor food combining would probably have stayed within the flavors and tastes of traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean food.

The 52 volume materia medica 本草綱目 of the physician Li Shizhen 李時珍 is the most important botanical work in Chinese history because it links the vegetables and fruit of East and West resulting from the globalization of fruit and vegetable trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. In it, edible plant foods–herbs, vegetables and fruit–are evaluated and cataloged according to traditional five phase 五行 color-flavor categories 木、火、土 、金、水 , including newly discovered foods of the Americas.

Because of the 本草綱目 chefs who emigrated from Asia to places like the Western United States, with year-round availability of vegetables and fruit, were able to adapt the five color language of food to include the new foods’ colors in original recipes: avocados, artichokes, green beans, tomatoes, multi-colored bell peppers and squash, black beans, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, corn, papaya, pineapple, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, pecans, cashews, peanuts, black walnuts, vanilla, chocolate–and many others.

Today, dishes combining the traditional five colors and flavors can still be found at Chinese vegetarian restaurants throughout Asia and in many Western cities.

Part 2: Eat a Rainbow for Heart Health

“…heart disease and stroke are eminently preventable….”
World Health Organization, Media centre. WHO publishes definitive atlas on global heart disease and
stroke epidemic. Geneva: WHO; 2004.

Over the past decade there has been an expansion of research showing that eating fruits and vegetables reduces both risk of stroke and dying from heart disease, the number one cause of death globally. Research Link

At the same time, organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA), Canada’s Cardiac Health Foundation and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) have been promoting the five color groups as a first line of defense to prevent heart disease and stroke.

LINK “Eat More Color” (AHA)      LINK “DID YOU KNOW?” (Canada)

LINK “Eat Right with Color” (ADA)

LINK “Do You Eat Right with Color?” (Texas Health Heart)

Eat a Rainbow

Eat a Rainbow programs teach children dietary variety by showing clever, easy and fun ways to get five colors of fruit and vegetables every day.

They put into practice the guidelines laid out by the AHA, ADA and Cardiac Health Foundation.

As the next generation moves forward, these programs lead the way to a lifestyle without the crippling burden of preventable dietary related disease, including CVD and stroke.

Here are three of our favorite Eat a Rainbow programs, with notes on key features of each one. At the end is a link to our recommended five color guide for beginners of any age.

Note to reader: Vegetables and fruit that are white- green (anthoxanthin-chlorophyll) are usually classified as green, but can be included in recipes as white, providing both color groups at the same time.

These include celery, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, pear and zucchini. When onion is shown in the green category, it means green onions or scallions. They also do double duty as green and white.

LINK Today I Ate a Rainbow

“Today I ate a Rainbow” is an award winning simple and fun game that gets kids excited about eating 5 colors of fruits and vegetables every day.

Put a Rainbow on Your Plate

LINK Primary Grades      LINK Intermediate Grades

Put a Rainbow on Your Plate activities are for Primary through Intermediate grades, requiring increased learning skills as the program progresses.

The result is that a qualified Intermediate grade student who has completed both activities may be able to assist younger students (and parents!) in putting a rainbow on their plates.

LINK Eat a rainbow resources      LINK Eat a Rainbow poster

SA Health (Government of South Australia) offers the widest range of resources for teachers, children and families of any Eat a Rainbow curriculum.

These resources are a powerful, unique model for States, Provinces or Countries looking to implement programs that reduce the incidences and costs of CVD and stroke, and promote overall health.

Here’s our recommended five color guide for beginners of any age.

Fill in additional vegetables and fruit from

LINK Eat More Color


LINK How many colors can you eat today?