Copyright © 2008
by Joe Smulevitz, CH, MH
Bursting with nutrients, berries are one of nature’s best foods to help ward off disease. Combating illness with food has a long history. Ancient healers used food as medicine to treat a variety of conditions. Until recently, modern medicine viewed ancient food folk medicine as folklore, without scientific validation. Lately, there’s been a surge of research confirming a relationship between certain foods and food components and disease prevention. Delicious berries are one class of fruit that has gained a lot of attention as a disease-fighting powerhouse. Scientists have discovered the presence of large amounts of special nutrients in berries called phytochemicals. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, and blackberries are loaded with these health-enhancing compounds.
Phytochemicals are also known as phytonutrients or plant-based nutritional compounds. Berries contain a number of these compounds that act as strong antioxidants to help protect the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals (by-products of the body’s normal chemical processes) which can lead to many age-related diseases.
Despite their diminutive size, berries exert more antioxidant activity than most fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanins are the potent phytochemicals responsible for the high antioxidant activity in berries. It provides the brilliant colours of fruits and vegetables. Studies indicate anthocyanins are notably abundant in berries, particularly in blueberries and raspberries. These phytonutrients appear to have extraordinary multiple health benefits such as protecting the blood vessels, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, helping prevent destruction of collagen, providing an important protein for healthy skin and connective tissue, inhibiting the development of cancer, increasing vitamin C levels within our cells, and helping to reverse short-term memory loss related to aging and Alzheimer’s.
Here is a summary of other important health-protective properties of berries:
- Ellagic acid, a phytochemcial found primarily in berries and certain nuts, exhibits anti-cancer activity. The pulp of strawberries and the seeds of raspberries and blackberries have more ellagic acid that any other fruits. Laboratory studies have demonstrated the ability of this cancer-fighting chemical to help deactivate specific carcinogens and curb the multiplication of cancer cells.
- Cranberries and to a lesser extent blueberries are an excellent source of proanthocyanidins. This phytochemical helps prevent infectious Escherichia coli bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract wall. The same compound that reduces the risk of urinary tract infections inhibits plaque formation on teeth that leads to gum disease. Beneficial compounds found in cranberries may help protect cardiovascular health and prevent kidney stones.
- Although all berries are good sources of vitamin C, strawberries rank at the top of the berry class in vitamin C. This antioxidant vitamin is essential for cardiovascular health, immune function, wound healing, healthy gums, and strengthening tissues.
- Berries are a fibre-rich food, especially raspberries and blackberries. Fibre is not a nutrient but is vital to help move food through the body. A lack of dietary fibre is correlated to a number of disorders including diabetes, high cholesterol, constipation, obesity, high blood pressure, and diverticular disease.
- Lutein, an important phytochemical in preventing age-related macular degeneration and its subsequent blindness is found in berries. Raspberries and blackberries are the best berry sources of lutein.
- Pterostilbene, a compound found in blueberries, may prevent the development of tumours in the colon and help lower cholesterol.
Fresh berries are readily available from spring to fall, and imported at other times of the year. Frozen berries are obtainable year round. Berries can be added to breakfast cereal, yogurt, pancakes, and muffin recipes, or they can be enjoyed on their own as a snack or dessert. Berries also make a great diet food—low in calories and containing no fat.
Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered Herbalist, a Master Herbalist, a nutritional researcher, and author of numerous health articles. He can be reached at email@example.com.