The deep, rich colour of succulent berries, their delicate and complex aromas, are for many synonymous with the experience and magic of summer.
Whether we pick up a few choice pounds at a local store or farmers market, perhaps brave the thorns of local blackberry bushes or methodically liberate our berry of choice from bushes at a u-pick farm, summer doesn’t seem quite complete without the addition of these evocative fruits in all their wonderful variety.
Waxing poetic aside, adding fresh berries to our diet has to be one of the easiest and tastiest ways to proactively improve our general health. Claims of the myriad benefits of berry consumption range from improving skin and hair, to lowering blood pressure and fighting heart disease.
The health benefits of berries are largely ascribed to plentiful anthocyanins – antioxidant flavonoids that give certain berries and vegetables their distinctive purple, blue and red colours – and also to abundant vitamins, minerals and powerful antioxidants (i) in the form of polyphenolic phytochemicals.
Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries all share these ‘superfood’ components, and each have their own distinctive character when it comes to beneficial attributes. Make sure to choose organic whenever possible.
Berries have delicate skin and as such are vulnerable to the uptake of pesticides, some of which, according to the Environmental Working Group in the US, have been linked to ‘cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems’.
Strawberries have made it to the top of their ‘dirty dozen’ list of pesticide contaminated fruits and vegetables. Get to know your local growers and suppliers of produce, it’s a great way to learn about where your fruit and vegetables come from and how they’re grown.
Surely the best known and most commonly eaten of berries in North America, blueberries have one of the highest nutrient densities per calorie. Research has often focused on the wild blueberry (low bush variety) but cultivated (high bush) blueberries are a great option.
Long associated with eye health, blueberries have one of the highest levels of anthocyanins in fruit. Along with vitamins C, B6, potassium and phytonutrients (ii) these powerful antioxidants help provide protection against the inflammation associated with heart disease. Those same vitamins and antioxidants scavenge free radicals associated with aging and a myriad of health issues, including cancer.
Research has linked the anthocyanin and antioxidant content of blueberries to increased mental function and lately as a possible weapon against the ravages of Alzheimer disease (iii). Calcium, magnesium and vitamin K help maintain bone and muscle strength; a blueberry smoothie post exercise could help with muscle recovery (iv).
2) Red Raspberries
The sweet red raspberry, juicy and with a certain hint of tartness, is a favourite to add to cereals, desserts and smoothies. With generous amounts of vitamin C and ample concentrations of anthocyanins and antioxidants, raspberries act powerfully to scavenge free radicals and protect the body against inflammation (v).
Raspberries also contain one of the highest concentrations of ellagic acid found in berries (vi). A phenolic compound, ellagic acid is a powerful antioxidant, and a useful weapon in the fight against cancers of the colon, esophagus, liver, lung, tongue and skin. Raspberries contain a high level of fibre, contributing to a healthy digestive tract, promoting the excretion of unwanted toxins and lowering cholesterol.
Raspberries contain the antioxidant zeaxanthin which filters out harmful blue rays and may help protect against macular degeneration. Red raspberry seed oil is an increasingly popular choice for natural skin care thanks to high levels of vitamin C, E and Omega-3 fatty acids – eating the whole berry is a great way to help maintain healthy skin from the inside out.
A mellow afternoon in warm sun, a bucket, the plunk as the first fruit hits the bottom of the soon-to-be-filled tub all add to the ritual of blackberry picking. Purple coloured hands, and tongues, at the end of the day testify to the fact that not all the fruit has made its way back home. One of the iconic rituals of summer also provides some robust dietary additions to the kitchen.
Like raspberries, blackberries are an excellent source of fibre, helping to lower cholesterol whilst maintaining a healthy digestive tract (vii). Rich in vitamin A, blackberries can help protect delicate mucous membranes including those that line the digestive tract and inside of the mouth. Vitamin C and K promote healthy bone and tissue.
Those inveterate anthocyanins (manifesting in blackberries as that wonderful deep purply blue), and high concentrations of phenolic compounds and antioxidants (viii) offer impressive protection against cancer. High levels of potassium help to lower blood pressure and protect against heart disease.
A bona fide super food rich in vitamin C, strawberries vary tremendously in their look and taste. Small, large, sweet, slightly tart, everyone has their favourite. But in common with all the berries we’ve talked about, strawberries make a brilliant addition to a balanced diet.
Offering an abundance of antioxidants, strawberries can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Quercetin, a flavonoid, enhances the anti-inflammatory effect, offering protection against certain cancers and potential as an aid to relieve rheumatoid arthritis (ix). As the antioxidants scavenge free radicals the high potassium content of strawberries helps to lower blood pressure and boost heart health.
The low glycemic index of strawberries make this particular berry a wise choice for diabetics. As if all these great benefits weren’t enough, strawberries have been indicated in dental health, their high polyphenol count helps inhibit the bacteria that contributes to tooth decay.
Tasting good and good for you, berries in all their colourful glory aren’t to be underestimated. A handful of berries thrown onto morning cereal, into a blender for a quick smoothie or just snacked on at some point during the day provides a wonderful addition to a balanced diet (x).
(i) Cellular Antioxidant Activity of Common Fruits: Kelly L.Wolfe, Xinmei Kang, Xiangjiu He, Mei Dong, Qingyuan Zhang, Rui Hai Liu Department of Food Science and Institute of Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853-7201
(ii)Blueberries Decrease Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Obese Men and Women with Metabolic Syndrome: Arpita Basu, Mei Du, Misti J. Leyva, Karah Sanchez, Nancy M. Betts, Mingyuan Wu, Christopher E. Aston, Timothy J. Lyons.
(iii) Blueberries Could Help Fight Alzheimer’s, UC Research Shows: University of Cincinnati: http://healthnews.uc.edu/news/?/27412/
(iv)Effect of New Zealand blueberry consumption on recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage: Yanita McLeay, Matthew J Barnes, Toby Mundel, Suzanne M Hurst, Roger D Hurst, and Stephen R Stannard
(v)Red Raspberries and Their Bioactive Polyphenols: Cardiometabolic and Neuronal Health Links. Burton-Freeman BM, Sandhu AK, Edirisinghe I.
(vi)Screening of selected flavonoids and phenolic acids in 19 berries: Food Research International 32 (1999) 345-353
(viii)Analysis of Phenolic Compounds and Antioxidant Activity in Wild Blackberry Fruits:
Jan Oszmiański, Paulina Nowicka,Mirosława Teleszko, Aneta Wojdyło, Tomasz Cebulak, and Krzysztof Oklejewicz
(ix)Quercetin: A Potential Natural Drug for Adjuvant Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis: Jian-Jun Ji,Yuan Lin,Shan-Shan Huang, Hou-Li Zhang, Yun-Peng Diao,and Kun Li
(x)Bioactive Compounds and Antioxidant Activity in Different Types of Berries: Sona Skrovankova, Daniela Sumczynski, Jiri Mlcek,Tunde Jurikova, and Jiri Sochor