Blueberries, an American Original
Where did blueberries come from? Native Americans were cultivating them long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Blueberries are native to North America and due to the popularity and sweet flavor, they were transplanted to Europe long ago, to be enjoyed by kings and queens. Today, there are many varieties of the fruit being grown both organically and conventionally.
The three most common distinctions are the high bush, the low bush, and the rabbit eye. The high bush variety is the most common, the biggest, and probably the ones you will find at your grocery store. The low bush variety produces a smaller berry and is commonly called the “wild” blueberry. The rabbit eye variety is found mostly in the southern states of the US and can grow up to 20 feet tall. Blueberry flavor can range from mildly sweet to tart & tangy.
The humble blueberry was once dismissed by doctors because of its low vitamin C content, but in recent years scientists have discovered a plethora of health advantages associated with adding blueberries to the diet.
The high content of antioxidants means a diet rich in blueberries, can improve night vision, reverse short term memory loss, increase motor skills, and may even fight infection. These days blueberries are second only to strawberries as the most commonly consumed berry in America.
What’s so great about them? They contain phytonutrients, anthocyanins, antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals, and they taste great.
Since scientists are now recommending a diet which includes 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day (2 1/2 cups fruit and 4 cups vegetables), it only makes sense to enjoy a cup of raw blueberries to protect your health and delight your taste buds.
Phytonutrients in Blueberries
“Phyto” comes from the Greek word for plant, and phytonutrients are all of the chemical compounds in plants that provide vitamins and minerals to humans when we eat fruits and vegetables.
These same phytonutrients that support health in humans also work to protect the growing plants from germs, insects, fungi, and other threats.
Phytonutrients are carotenoids, flavonoids, ellagic acid, resveratrol, glucosinolates, and phytoestrogens.
Phytonutrients develop in plants to protect the plant from damage from the environment. Plants are exposed to excessive ultraviolet radiation, predator pests, toxins and pollution, resulting in the generation of dangerous free radicals within their cells.
The plants “grow” phytonutrients to protect themselves. When people eat these plants and ingest these nutrients, our human cells reap the same benefits the plants do, which includes protection from oxidants.
Anthocyanins are glycoside pigments which give blueberries, red cabbage, cherries, and eggplant their blue, red, and purple colors, and may be used as pH indicators because their color changes with the pH level.
They are red or pink in acidic solutions (pH lower than 7), purple in neutral solutions (pH at 7), greenish-yellow in alkaline solutions (pH over 7), and colorless in very alkaline solutions, where the pigment is completely reduced.
Antioxidants are molecules which inhibit the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidative damage, commonly referred to as oxidative stress, is a chemical reaction that produces free radicals which damage cells and cell structure. Oxidative stress is known to cause or contribute to cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, heart failure, depression and ADHD.
A diet rich in the fruit and vegetable group promotes health by getting antioxidants into the system.
Flavonoids are one of the largest nutrient families known to science, and are most widely known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The family includes over 6,000 members. Flavonoids include quercetin, kaempferol, and anthocyanidins.
Blueberries have been shown to improve and/or boost memory, and reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Studies are underway to determine the “most effective dosage” of blueberries as doctors are exploring a preventative approach to dementia and the health problems associated with aging. There is no remedy for dementia, but prevention has possibilities.
Studies have focused on those older adults with mild, acquired memory decline participating in a dietary supplement experiment. The doctors in the study had juice made from wild blueberries, and concentrated the juice to provide a measurable amount of anthocyanins. Volunteers were given measured doses based on body weight, and consumed the juice with each meal for 12 weeks. A second group was given a placebo as a control so the data from the two groups could be compared.
The study indicated that wild blueberry juice supplementation for 12 weeks improved memory function in adults with ‘early memory decline’ and there was also a trend towards a lower fasting glucose level in those with symptoms of insulin resistance.
Lowers Blood Pressure
Eating 1 cup of blueberries per day reduces blood pressure and arterial stiffness, by increasing nitric oxide production, according to a study written in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
A British study found that participants with the highest intake of anthocyanins from blueberries had an 8% decrease in blood pressure. The same study further showed that anthocyanins also protect the aging person’s eyes and brain.
Lowers LDL Cholesterol
New research shows that eating blueberries everyday lowers LDL cholesterol better than statin drugs, and without any side effects. (Cholesterol is blood fat, and is necessary for digestion, but there can be too much of a good thing.)
Agnes M. Rimando, PhD, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Products Utilization Research Center in Oxford, Miss., and her team, conducted a study on pterostilbene, a compound found in blueberries, for its ability to turn on a switch in cells that breaks down fat and cholesterol. The team reported their findings to the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.
“We are excited to learn that blueberries, which are already rich in healthy compounds, may also be a potent weapon in the battle against obesity and heart disease,” Rimando says in a news release. The experiments showed that the blueberry compound worked better than ciprofibrate, a drug used outside the U.S. to lower blood fats and cholesterol.
Helps Prevent Heart Disease
Eating a diet rich in blueberries has been shown to increase urinary antioxidant capacity, decrease LDL oxidation associated with high cholesterol, and decrease total cholesterol.
Since elevated plasma glucose, lipids, and lipid oxidation have been associated with coronary artery disease, this suggests the potential role of edible berries in removing or eliminating these risk factors.
Lately the blueberry has become the rock star of berries due to the wide variety of health systems supported by phytonutrients.
These vital substances act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in the body, especially in the cardiovascular system, (though some studies have shown that the benefits increase when more than 3 cups per day of blueberries are ingested). One of the newer areas for blueberry research is in the science of cognitive functions and memory loss.
Studies have shown improvements in memory and cognitive function after 4-8 weeks of regular blueberry intake.
People who suffer from type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance have participated in studies that focused on blueberries (and other berries) in the diet. Due to their low glycemic index value, eating raw blueberries (or powered blueberries) has been shown to regulate blood sugar and diminish insulin resistance, while adding a sweet flavor to the diet.
The eye’s retina is also at great risk of oxidative stress. In laboratory studies on animals, the anthocyanins in blueberries were shown to protect the retina from oxidative stress and damage caused by the UV in sunlight.