Blending Blueberries Into Your Diet

Blueberries are perennial plants with indigo berries in the Cyanococcus section of the genus Vaccinium, which also includes cranberries and bilberries.  All these berries belong to the Ericaceae family, along with huckleberries, Rhododendron, azalea, heath, and heather.

Vaccinium species are classified according to their growth habit as high-bush and low-bush berries:

  • High-bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) grow on a highly branched, erect deciduous shrub with rich foliage. It grows up to 10-12 feet tall in cultivated orchards and bears clusters of small, cream-white flowers during spring, which subsequently develop into berries after about two months. In the wild, high bush-blueberries are found on the edges of marshes, lakes, ponds, and streams. Rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum, also known as V. ashei) is a medium-sized shrub that grows naturally in the southeastern United States.
  • Low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is a short, erect plant grows about one or two feet in height that spreads by underground rhizomes. In cultivated farms, it is grown as two-year cycle crop, and the whole plant is either mowed down or burnt to allow new shoots that appear only during next season.

Blueberries emerged more than 13,000 years ago in North America, where Native Americans enjoyed them year-round. They dried blueberries in the sun and added them whole to soups and stews, or crushed them into a powder to use as a food preservative. Native Americans reportedly gave blueberries to the pilgrims to help them make it through their first winter. Native American folklore recounted how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to ease the children’s hunger during a famine. They called blueberries “star berries” because the blossom end of each berry (the calyx) forms a perfect five-pointed star. The Native Americans used blueberries (and their leaves and roots) for medicinal purposes, and developed one of the first blueberry baked goods, which they called Sautauthig (pronounced sawi-taw-teeg). This simple pudding made with blueberries, cracked corn (or samp) and water. Sautautig became popular among the settlers too, and many historians believe it was part of the first Thanksgiving feast.

As late as the early 20th century, people didn’t think blueberries could be domesticated, but Elizabeth White of New Jersey was determined to cultivate the highbush blueberry. She teamed up with Dr. Frederick Coville to identify wild blueberry plants with the most desirable properties, crossbreed the bushes, and create new blueberry varieties. White and Colville produced the first commercial crop of blueberries in Whitesbog, New Jersey in 1916. Today, many juicy, sweet, and easy-to-pick blueberry plants that thrive in various climates.

In 1997, the average adult in the United States consumed about 13 ounces of blueberries per year. Ten years later, in 2007, that amount nearly doubled and reached an average level of 22 ounces. This increasing consumption of blueberries within the U.S. has led to cultivation of blueberries on almost 100,000 acres of land in the U.S., and has moved blueberries to second place as the most commonly eaten berry in the U.S. (second only to strawberries).

The United States grows about 275 million pounds of blueberries each year, accounting for over half of the 550 million pounds grown worldwide, followed by Canada, which produces about 30%. Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and North Carolina are states most heavily involved in blueberry farming. Maine is the largest lowbush blueberry producer in the world.

Blueberries contain a wide variety of phytochemicals, including:

  • Geraniol, which is an antioxidant, and is being studied for its abilities to suppress tumor growth.
  • Salicylic acid, which helps to reduce pain and inflammation, prevent the formation of dangerous blood clots, prolong the life of food, and potentially reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Resveratrol, which may help protect against heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes, and prevent age-related problems such as heart disease and insulin resistance.
  • Pterostilbene, which inhibits breast cancer, diabetes, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
  • Cyanidin, which fights cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and free radicals.
  • Delphinidin, which is a powerful antioxidant that can protect your body’s cells from damaging free radicals, and may prevent inflammation, atherosclerosis, cancer, and heart disease.
  • Malvidin, which may kill cancer cells.
  • Peonidin, which is a powerful antioxidant that fights damaging free radicals, and may fight inflammation and cancer.
  • Petunidin, which is a powerful antioxidant that may prevent cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Proanthocyanidins, which may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce free radical formation and the signs and symptoms of chronic age-related disorders.
  • Epicatechin, which is a strong antioxidant, has insulin mimic action, improves heart health, exerts a protective role on osmotic fragility of cells, similar to that of insulin, reduces lipid peroxidation and inhibits platelet aggregation, and causes blood vessel dilation by regulating nitric oxide, a molecule secreted by the blood vessel endothelium to signal surrounding muscle to relax.

Blueberries can:

  1. Fight free radicals. The wide variety of antioxidants in blueberries improve antioxidant defenses in virtually all body systems that need special protection from oxidative stress, including your cardiovascular system, your muscles, your nervous system, and your digestive tract. Blueberries have an ORAC value of 5562 Trolex equivalents (TE) per 100 grams.
  2. Boost your immune system. The vitamin C in blueberries supports your immune system, processes toxins for elimination, and acts as an antihistamine.
  3. Protect your cardiovascular system. The vitamin K in blueberries allows your blood to clot normally and helps prevent calcification of your arteries. Blueberries support the antioxidant defenses of your cardiovascular system particularly well. Blueberries can improve blood fat balances, including reducing total cholesterol, raising HDL cholesterol, and lowering triglycerides. Blueberries can also help protect blood components (like LDL cholesterol) from oxygen damage that could lead to the eventual clogging of your blood vessels. They also protect the cells lining your blood vessel walls, and improve the overall antioxidant capacity in your blood itself. Nitric oxide synthases (NOS) are a family of enzymes that catalyze the production of nitric oxide (NO) from L-arginine. NO is an important cellular signaling molecule. It helps modulate vascular tone, insulin secretion, airway tone, and peristalsis, and is involved in angiogenesis and neural development. It may function as a retrograde neurotransmitter. Excess formation of one type of NOS called inducible NOS, or iNOS is generally associated with increased risk of inflammation. However, increased activity of a second form of NOS called endogenous NOS, or eNOS, is usually associated with better balance in cardiovascular function. Eating blueberries daily can result in increased eNOS activity, which can mean a healthier cardiovascular system. Eating blueberries often also supports healthy blood pressure, and can significantly reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressures and maintain them at a healthy level.
  4. Build strong bones. The vitamin K in blueberries helps protect your bones from fracture and helps prevent postmenopausal bone loss.
  5. Improve cognitive functioning. Daily blueberry consumption can improve cognitive function including memory. Blueberries might also slow down or postpone the onset of other cognitive problems frequently associated with aging. A large part of this cognitive protection is most likely due to nerve cell protection from oxygen damage by blueberries’ vast array of antioxidants. Nerve cells have a naturally high risk of oxygen damage and they require special antioxidant protection at all times in life. Their ability to send information throughout your body depends on the presence of balanced oxygen metabolism, and that balance cannot be achieved without ample intake of antioxidants. By lowering the risk of oxidative stress in your nerve cells, blueberries help you maintain smoothly working nerve cells and healthy cognitive function.
  6. Balance blood sugar. Blueberries can help people diagnosed with blood sugar problems regulate their blood sugar. The chlorogenic acid in blueberries helps lower blood sugar levels and control blood-glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Blueberries also provide a very good amount of fiber (nearly 4 grams per cup), which is very important in regulating blood sugar.
  7. Promote eye health. Your retinas are at higher than normal risk of oxidative stress. The anthocyanins in blueberries, including malvidins, delphinidins, pelargonidins, cyanidins, and peonidins, protect your retinas from oxygen damage and from sunlight damage.
  8. Potentially prevent cancer. Blueberries are being studied for their ability to prevent breast cancer, colon cancer, esophageal cancer, and cancers of the small intestine. The vitamin K in blueberries provides possible protection against liver and prostate cancer. The vitamin C in blueberries helps prevent cancer by neutralizing volatile oxygen free radical molecules and preventing damage to your DNA that can lead to cancer, and by destabilizing a tumor’s ability to grow under oxygen-starved conditions.

Nutrients in 100 Grams Raw Blueberries

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin K

19.3 µg

24%

manganese

0.3 mg

17%

vitamin C

9.7 mg

16%

fiber

2.4 g

10%

carbohydrates

14.5 g

5%

Calories

57

3%

vitamin E

0.6 mg

3%

copper

0.1 mg

3%

vitamin B6

0.1 mg

3%

thiamine

0.037 mg

2.5%

phosphorus

13 mg

2%

iron

0.3 mg

2%

riboflavin

0.041 mg

2%

potassium

52.4 mg

1%

vitamin A

36.7 IU

1%

magnesium

4.1 mg

1%

folate

4.1 µg

1%

protein

0.5 g

1%

niacin

0.3 mg

1%

pantothenic acid

0.1 mg

1%

zinc

0.1 mg

1%

calcium

4.1 mg

0.4%

fat

0.2 g

0.3%

selenium

0.1 µg

0.1%

sodium

0.7 mg

0.03%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

lutein-zeaxanthin

54.4 µg

carotene-ß

21.8 µg

Blueberries that are cultivated in the United States are available from May through October with a peak season of June through August, while imported berries may be available at other times of the year.

Choose blueberries that are firm, plump, smooth-skinned, with a silver-gray surface bloom. Buy deep purple-blue to blue-black berries. Gently shake the container. If the blueberries do not move freely, they may be soft and damaged or moldy. Avoid blueberries that appear dull, soft, shriveled, or watery. They should be free from moisture, because water will cause the blueberries to decay. When purchasing frozen berries, shake the bag gently to ensure that the berries move freely and are not clumped together, which may suggest that they have been thawed and refrozen.

Before storing fresh blueberries, remove any crushed or moldy blueberries to prevent the rest from spoiling. Don’t wash berries until right before eating, as washing will remove the bloom that protects the berries’ skins from degradation. Store ripe blueberries in a covered container in the refrigerator set at high relative humidity, where they will keep for up to 3 days. If kept out at room temperature for more than a day, blueberries may spoil.

You can also freeze ripe blueberries, although this will slightly change their texture and flavor. Before freezing, wash, drain and remove any damaged berries. To better ensure uniform texture upon thawing, spread the blueberries out on a cookie sheet or baking pan, place in the freezer until frozen, then put the berries in a container for storage in the freezer.

Fresh blueberries are very fragile. If they are not organic, wash them briefly and carefully and then gently pat them dry. If you know the source of either wild or organic berries, try not to wash them at all.

When using frozen berries in recipes that do not require cooking, thaw well and drain prior to using.

Blueberries retain their maximum amount of nutrients and their maximum taste when they are enjoyed fresh and not prepared in a cooked recipe. That is because their nutrients – including vitamins, antioxidants, and enzymes – undergo damage when exposed to temperatures (350°F/175°C and higher) used in baking.

Here are some ideas for using blueberries:

  • Add fresh blueberries to a green or fruit salad.
  • Add fresh or frozen blueberries to your breakfast smoothie.
  • Add fresh or dried blueberries to hot or cold breakfast cereals.
  • Layer soy yogurt and blueberries in stemmed glasses and top with crystallized ginger.

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