Berry Bonanza

Strawberries (Photo: Swedish Embassy)

Spring is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is the return of fresh ripe berries. Every week, I hustle to my farmers markets to see what is waiting for me. Right now, it’s strawberries: picked at their peak, they are tender, sweet, juicy and red throughout – but they have a very short season, so get them while you can!

There are very few foods that match the beautiful color and intense flavor of berries. And, fortunately, these fruits are nutrition superstars.

For many years, most berries were regarded as nutritionally inferior because of their lack of traditional essential nutrients such as vitamins A and C. But that was before scientists recently discovered the presence of large amounts of beneficial phytochemicals (“phyto” is Greek for plant).

Apparently, each berry contains at least 100 nutrients and phytochemicals, the plant compounds with potent powers of healing. Some of the most important phytochemicals in berries are antioxidants, powerful substances believed to reduce inflammation, improve immune function and help prevent heart disease and cancers.

Antioxidants are compounds that absorb oxygen free radicals — molecules that cause oxidation in the body’s cells. Scientists believe that these molecules cause most of the diseases of aging, such as immune system decline, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and neurological impairments affecting cognition and balance. Think of oxidation as being similar to rusting. Or imagine an apple slice turning brown. By simply adding lemon juice, an antioxidant, the apple’s flesh stays fresh and prevents the browning or oxidation.

A similar thing happens in your body. Oxidation is constantly occurring in your cells because of environmental pollutants, smoking, exposure to the sun, heat generated through basic metabolic functioning, unhealthy diets and other factors. It takes a large supply of antioxidants to counter this. Berries have been found to have one of the highest antioxidant scores of all fruits and vegetables.

But there are other good reasons to eat berries. The berry family contains 300 to 400 beneficial, disease-fighting chemicals. The phytochemicals in berries, depending on the type, also stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance cancer-fighting enzymes, positively influence hormone metabolism, have antibacterial and antiviral effects and may even reverse some aspects of brain aging.

The most potent berries are the more deeply colored varieties, especially blackberries, blueberries and cranberries, followed by raspberries, strawberries and cherries (not technically a berry, but similar nutritionally) but all more potent than most other fruits. Their color is provided by one of the most powerful phytochemicals, called anthocyanins, which berries synthesize to protect themselves from the elements.

Anthocyanins play a role in . . . protecting against cancers of the gastrointestinal tract,” says Ronald Prior, nutritionist at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center in Little Rock. “Blackberries have been shown in animals to protect against colon and esophageal cancer.” A preliminary human study found blueberries inhibited blood clotting, a risk factor in cardiovascular disease.

The anthocyanins in berries also may be responsible for improving some aspects of aging, such as memory, motor coordination, balance, vision and even symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, according to many years of animal studies.

Blueberries have interesting, surprising qualities,” said Prior. “We’re hoping foods such as blueberries can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease in humans as they do in rats.”

The scientists found similar effects in cranberries, which have additional phytochemicals called tannins. They may be responsible for helping to prevent urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, gum disease and even ear infections in children. Cranberries are also effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria — and 20 percent of urinary tract infections are resistant to antibiotics. The tannins work by blocking the disease-causing bacteria and preventing it from adhering to human cell walls.

Resveratrol

New research has found that raspberries, blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries contain a phytochemical called resveratrol, also present in wine, which is thought to help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and is implicated as an important compound in the health benefits of the “French Paradox.”

Strawberries contain large amounts of phytochemicals called ellagitannins, which are also in raspberries and blackberries. Studies at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition found those berries are capable of inhibiting a number of key steps in the development of cardiovascular disease and may have immense potential for the prevention and treatment of heart disease and stroke. Strawberries are also high in antioxidant Vitamin C and folic acid, important in preventing birth defects.

Most of what scientists know about berries has been determined in animal studies and in labs using cell cultures. But the few human clinical studies are showing promising results. Human studies on berries are limited because they’re very expensive, and as one scientist explained, “You can’t patent a berry!” This means that big pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to foot the research bill. Groups such as blueberry or strawberry growers fund some, but it’s up to Uncle Sam to find out if we can save millions on medications and hospitalizations by simply eating more berries.

Berries are an ideal food. Besides being absolutely delicious and colorful on a plate, they’re loaded with nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and they’re low in calories. They have maximum flavor and nutrient content when picked at ripeness. Freezing them when ripe or buying ripe frozen berries is a great alternative. But, simply ripening a berry on your kitchen counter will increase its phytochemical content, too.

Berries can be eaten morning, noon or night – whatever your preference. I eat berries every morning on my oatmeal. In the summer, I’ll use any fresh local berry but in the winter, I stick with frozen blueberries.

“Berries are extremely versatile; they fit perfectly with any meal or snack,” says Janie Hibler, author of “The Berry Bible” (William Morrow, 2004). In “The Berry Bible,” Hibler provides a berry encyclopedia and berry recipes ranging from smoothies, drinks, and breads to soups, salads, salsas, main courses, and desserts.

So, what are some ways we can eat berries every day?

“A no-brainer,” she says, “is a berry smoothie for breakfast.” For lunch, she says, throw a handful into your salad. For snacks, carry dried berries and nuts. At dinner, berries go beautifully with meats, grains and main courses.

You will eat more berries if you simply keep them on hand and ready to grab. Get them now when they’re fresh and freeze them yourself. Frozen blueberries are fun snacks for kids to pop in their mouths, like hard candy. You can also make berry popcicles, syrups for pancakes and spritzers.

Berry Coulis

Hibler recommends always having berry purees, or “coulis” on hand. “A sauce rivaled by none,” she says. But they also are great added to drinks, smoothies, yogurts, cereal, you name it. To make a coulis, rinse and drain the berries, process in a food processor. Add a little sugar or even liqueur, if desired. It will keep in your refrigerator for three to four days or be frozen for a month.

Some of my favorite berry recipes:

Spinach and Strawberry Salad with Toasted Almonds and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Katherine’s Spicy Mexican Salsa with Strawberries

Soupe aux Fraises et Rhubarbe (Strawberry Rhubarb Soup)

Kjerstin’s Curried Chicken Salad with Strawberries and Toasted Almonds

Strawberry Soy Milk Smoothie

Strawberry – or any Berry – Granita

Dark Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries

Originally Published in The Washington Post

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