The sweet season has finally arrived. The intensity of July has passed, and late summer berries – blueberries, blackberries, and some raspberries - are in season in Maine. Whether you buy them in the store or pack up the family and go raking every summer, blueberries are an especially big part of summers here in Maine. Not only are blueberries delicious, but they are nutritious as well. From protecting our hearts to boosting our brains to disease prevention, blueberries are a true super food.
Blueberries are America’s second favorite berry (strawberries come in first place). It is one of the few fruits that are native to North America. Native Americans were very fond of berries and ate as many different varieties as they could find, including blueberries. Berries were an integral ingredient in pemmican, which was a portable food made out of meat, fat, and dried fruit. Unfortunately, Americans don’t eat enough of them. The average American eats only one tablespoon of berries per week.
Berries are highly nutritious. On average, they contain four times the antioxidants of most other fruits. Blueberries are a good source of fiber, Vitamin C, manganese, and Vitamin K. They are high in anthocyanins, a phytonutrient and plant pigment that gives them their characteristic rich blue-purple color and is at the root of their many health benefits. While blueberries are our beloved Maine berry, it is important to note that many other blue-purple berries have similar, if not higher, anthocyanin contents. Bilberries, chokeberries, elderberries, black currants, and black raspberries all have higher anthocyanin contents compared to blueberries. Elderberries top the list of the highest anthocyanins, with almost three times that of blueberries.
There is a link between berry intake and cardiovascular health. The Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIHD), with almost 2,000 participants, found those with the highest berry intake had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease-related death. A number of intervention studies have shown a link between the consumption of berries (including acai, black currants, bilberries, boysenberries, blueberries, chokeberries, cranberries, lingonberries, raspberries, strawberries, and wolfberries) and improved metabolic markers. These include an increase in antioxidant capacity, decrease in LDL oxidation (which is harmful for heart health), decrease in blood sugars or total cholesterol, and an increase in HDL, the “good” cholesterol. In other words, eating these berries had a beneficial effect on heart health.
One interesting blueberry study found that a supplement of wild blueberries alleviated (though it did not eradicate) the inflammation and high blood pressure associated with the diet-induced obesity in mice. And one human study found that blueberries improved insulin sensitivity in a small group of obese, insulin-resistant men and women. This suggests that eating berries can be beneficial even if you have ill health or a less than ideal diet.
Berry consumption is showing much promise in delaying or slowing age-related dementia. One interesting rat study revealed what blueberries can do for the brain. Middle-aged rodents were placed on four different diets: lab chow only and lab chow with blueberries, strawberries, or spinach. At the end of the eight-month study, the blueberry fed rats had better strength, balance, and coordination. Surprisingly, the blueberry rats had brains that were more youthful than at the beginning of the study, which means that their mental decline was actually reversed. Some human studies have likewise showed benefits of blueberries. One study included a small group of men and women who were showing signs of memory loss and impaired cognition. Some of the participants drank two glasses of wild blueberry juice per day, while the others drank a non-berry drink. After three months, the blueberry juice drinkers scored thirty percent better on cognitive and memory tests. Interestingly, their moods were also better.
While more studies are needed, cell and animal studies show promise in prevention and inhibition of tumor growth with blueberry consumption. It is considered a cancer-fighting food, probably due to its antioxidant activity. Antioxidants decrease free radical damage that can harm DNA and lead to cancer.
Aside from going blueberry raking or growing your own, blueberries can also be found at roadside stands, farmer’s markets, or your local grocery store. Make sure to pick ones that are not shriveled, soft, moldy, or leaking. Blueberries are harvested at peak of ripeness and do not keep longer than a week. If you do not eat them right away, store them in your crisper drawer of your refrigerator. If you pick your own or buy them by the flat, you can both save money and enjoy delicious berries year-round by freezing them.
Blueberry pie, blueberry pancakes, blueberry jam, blueberry crumble . . . the list goes on. But blueberries, as well as many other berries, don’t have to be relegated to sweet dessert foods. Try adding them to snacks or savory dishes as well. Think blueberries mixed into a pasta salad or sprinkled over a large leafy greens salad. Try them in a relish, meat marinade, or barbeque sauce. Blueberries go very well with yoghurt or kefir. Traditionally overly sweet desserts can be turned into more healthful treats by changing some of the ingredients, like using cornmeal instead of white flour in blueberry muffins or almond meal in a blueberry buckle. Reducing the sugar content of recipes is always a healthy idea. And, of course, simply popping fresh blueberries into your mouth for a snack is always a delicious option.
½ cup frozen blueberries
1 cup plain yoghurt, kefir, or unsweetened milk substitute
½ ripe avocado
½-1 very ripe, frozen banana
1 Tablespoon chia seeds or flax seeds
1 Tablespoon nut butter
1 scoop protein powder
Combine all ingredients as desired in a blender and enjoy right away. Note: the riper the banana, the sweeter it will be. Start with half a banana and increase if you would like a sweeter taste.