With the London Summer Olympic Games just seven months away, we’re thinking about gold, which has come to symbolize athletic excellence — with medals and trophies conferring universally recognized champion status. Now, new research suggests that the color gold may have a fundamental, physiological connection to performance. Astaxanthin — a plant pigment behind the yellow-orange-pink hue of many fruit and vegetables — might give athletes an extra edge.

In a study published in the International Journal of Sport Medicine, researchers monitored the effects of astaxanthin intake on a group of seven male cyclists (average age 28). Cyclists given astaxanthin enjoyed a 5% improvement in time on a 12-mile test.While the group shaved an average of two minutes off their cycling speed, each one of the seven volunteers saw improvement in their speed.Why might this be? Researchers speculated that the astaxanthin cyclists were 48% better at converting fat stores to exercise “fuel.” This effect might hold promise for those whose exercise focus is more about reducing inches than reducing sprint times.

Other plant compounds under study for potential performance benefits include quercetin — found in berries, apples and onions.One University of South Carolina study found that quercetin intake enabled cyclists to ride 13% longer before fatigue set in. Lychee extract is also receiving attention — yielding 25% less post-exercise inflammation in one study. Beets may also help you beat the competition, improving cycling endurance, according to British researchers.As always we recommend getting your nutrients from whole food sources, as some research suggests supplementation may have unintended consequences, possibly neutralizing certain exercise benefits.

Bonus: Golden tomatoes, beets, squash and carrots aren’t the only places you’ll find astaxanthin — the carotenoid gives salmon its pinkish hue. This is true both for wild and farmed salmon (in the latter, the carotenoid is added to the fish feed).

Published January 1, 2012