The blueberry may be small in size, but it packs a mighty nutritional wallop. Sweet, juicy, and ultra good for you, it’s also one of the most popular summer fruits.
And with a very short season, you don’t want to miss out when they’re available.
To take advantage of the upcoming harvest, let’s have a look at their many health benefits, how we can incorporate more fresh berries into our diets, and how to preserve their goodness once the season has passed.
After that, there’s a plethora of recipes to think about, while you’re waiting for blueberry season to arrive and whenever you’re ready to get going in the kitchen.
Native to North America, botanists estimate that blueberries arrived on the landscape some 13,000 years ago. Close cousins of the North American species live in Europe, Asia, and South America. From the genus vaccinium, its relatives include cranberries, bilberries, rhododendrons, and azaleas.
When the first European explorers arrived on the continent, Native Americans had been enjoying this delicious fruit for millennia – fresh when in season, and dried or smoked throughout the rest of the year.
They dried the berries in the sun before adding them to soups and stews, or crushing them into a powder and dry-rubbing it onto meat, to act as a preservative.
During a time of famine, the story claims the Great Spirit sent his star berries to ease the hunger of his people. Legend tells us they gave their harvest in turn to early pilgrims, to help them through their first winter.
The leaves and roots were brewed into teas and used for medicinal purposes, such as to ease a persistent cough.
A pudding made with cracked corn and water became a favorite among the settlers to the new world. They added milk, butter, and sugar before baking, and historians hold that this blueberry pudding was a welcome part of the first Thanksgiving celebration.
Of course, at these first feasts, the blueberries were wild rather than cultivated varieties – what are commonly known today as “low bush” types.
Today, blueberries are big business, with hundreds of varieties available. Economically, they’re the second most important berry crop in the US.
Until the early 1900s, it was assumed that the wild, low bush plants couldn’t be domesticated. At that time, a determined farm girl from New Jersey named Elizabeth White joined up with Dr. Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist.
Together, they identified the wild plants with the most desirable properties – hardiness, ease of pollination, early yield – and crossbred the bushes, creating strong, vibrant new varieties. Their first commodity crop was marketed in Whitesbog, New Jersey in 1916.
Blueberries rank the highest of any fruit for antioxidant capacity, a unit of measurement on the ORAC – or oxygen radical absorbance capacity – scale, with 13,427 in a daily serving from the fruit of wild bushes, and 9,019 from commercially produced fruit.
Compare that to cranberries, the fruit with the next highest concentration of antioxidants, which come in at 8,983. (1)
Their high antioxidant content essential to optimizing health as they’re a top defense against free radicals, which can damage cellular structure and DNA.
Most of the current health research on blueberries involves, as least in part, their anthocyanin content. This important phytonutrient is usually mentioned first in their health-promoting descriptions, and this offers impressive health-supportive characteristics.
Anthocyanin is a combination of two Greek words meaning “from flowers” and “deep blue.” This deep hued antioxidant pigment gives a number of foods their vibrant shades of blue, purple, red, and orange.
They’re most abundant in berries and berry juice (including blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries) as well as red and purple grapes, red wine, eggplant, red cabbage, black beans, sweet cherries, black plums, and blood oranges.
Plants with vibrantly colored fruits and veggies produce anthocyanins as a protective defense against harsh environmental stressors, such as cold temperatures, drought, and damaging ultraviolet light. (2)
In addition to the anthocyanins, they contain a wide range of flavonoids, all of which contribute to antioxidant effectiveness.
As a result of these generous amounts of healthful compounds, these berries also rank very highly on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI). ANDI is a ranking system that evaluates foods based on their nutritional value, vitamin and mineral content, phytochemical composition, and antioxidant capacity.
Foods with the highest amount of nutrients per calorie receive the highest rankings on the ANDI Index, and blueberries consistently receive top ratings. (3)
For nutritional values, each one-cup serving of fresh blueberries contains:
- 84 calories
- 0 grams of cholesterol (as only animal products contain cholesterol)
- 1.1 grams of protein
- 0.49 grams of fat
- 21 grams of carbohydrates
- 3.6 grams of dietary fiber, which is 14% of daily requirements
In the same one-cup serving we also find 24% of the daily recommended value of vitamin C, 4% of vitamin B6, and 36% of vitamin K. They provide iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, manganese, zinc, copper, folate, beta carotene, choline, and vitamins A and E as well. (4)
9 Health Benefits of Blueberries
1. Strong Bones – The minerals iron, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and vitamin K found in blueberries all help with building and maintaining healthy bone structure.
Iron and zinc are needed to maintain the strength and flexibility of bones and joints, and a vitamin K deficiency has been linked with a higher chance of bone fractures. Adequate vitamin K intake also improves calcium absorption, and may aid in the reduction of calcium loss. (5)
2. Lower Blood Pressure – Naturally free of sodium, they also contain potassium, calcium, and magnesium – all of which have been found to be effective in naturally decreasing blood pressure. (6)
3. Manage Diabetes – Research shows that for Type 1 diabetes, those who consume high-fiber diets such as those containing blueberries have lower blood glucose levels. And Type 2 diabetics may show an improvement in blood sugar, lipids, and insulin levels. (7)
4. Healthy Hearts – Zero cholesterol along with fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and this berry’s rich phytonutrient content all work together to support a healthy heart. And again, the fiber content helps to lower the total amount of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which in turn may help to decrease the risk of heart disease. (7)
5. Cancer Prevention – Along with vitamins C and A, the variety of phytonutrients found in this fruit function as powerful antioxidants, providing the vital role of protecting cells against destructive and damaging free radicals.
They may block tumor growth, reduce inflammation throughout the body, and slow or help to prevent numerous types of cancer. These include colon, endometrial, esophageal, lung, mouth, pancreatic, pharynx, and prostate.
Folate also plays an important role in DNA generation and maintenance, and healthy cells help to prevent the formation of cancer cells from damaged mutations in the DNA. (8)
6. Improve Mental Health – Numerous studies have shown that adequate consumption of blueberries can reduce the risk of cognitive decline as well as Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder resulting from cell death in parts of the brain.
The same studies have also revealed that, in addition to reducing the risk of cognitive damage, they can also improve short-term memory loss and motor coordination. (7)
7. Healthy Digestion – Because of their fiber content (14% of the daily recommended value), they help to keep the digestive system healthy, preventing constipation and promoting regularity.
8. Weight Loss – Adequate dietary fiber is recognized as an important factor in weight reduction and healthy weight maintenance, because of its “bulking” properties in the digestive tract. Foods high in fiber increase satiety as well, thereby reducing the appetite and making us feel fuller for longer.
9. Firm Skin Texture – Collagen, necessary for strong and healthy skin, requires the essential nutrient vitamin C to work as an antioxidant, and to help to prevent external damage caused by overexposure to the sun, airborne pollutants, and smoke. Vitamin C also boosts collagen’s function to smooth wrinkles and improve overall skin texture.
How to Eat More
Just ½ cup three times a week can play a significant role in reaping some of the benefits listed above.
And with their brief availability as a fresh fruit (at least if they’re locally grown), it’s good to know that researchers have found that fresh fruit and vegetables including blueberries can be frozen for up to six months without any loss of compounds such as vitamin C, polyphenols, anthocyanins, lutein, and beta-carotene.
To freeze, wash and drain well, ensuring they’re dry so as to minimize the formation of ice crystals. Lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze for a couple of hours, then seal in airtight containers or zip-top bags.
When purchasing dried, frozen, or juice, always check the labels for any added sugars – they’re sweet as is and really don’t need anything added. And, when looking for jellies or jams, try the natural all-fruit spreads without added sugars.
- Serve them in a cool parfait with yogurt or ice cream, and add nuts, coconut, and a shaving of dark chocolate.
- Serve as toppings on your breakfast – oatmeal and porridge, waffles, pancakes, granola, yogurt, or cereal are all enhanced by berries.
- Blend up a quick and easy frappe or smoothie with fresh or frozen berries, or try a homemade popsicle.
- Delicious in salads, they work very well with fresh spinach, super greens, walnuts or pecans, and feta cheese… all topped with an herb vinaigrette.
- Add them to teas – both hot and cold.
- Add them to your baking in muffins, granola bars, and sweet breads, or make your own fresh syrup by blending them with a little water for topping desserts or breakfast.
- Make your own super trail mix with dried, unsweetened blueberries, raw seeds, and your favorite nuts for a powerful, energizing snack.
- And of course, make a pie.
The Great Blueberry Fraud
Numerous well-known manufacturers of cereal, breads, bagels, granola bars, and baking mixes like to ride the antioxidant gravy train and market consumer goods with blueberry in their product names – and photos of plump, healthy berries on the packaging of their products.
Unfortunately, most of these products contain no real berries. After all, they’re expensive, and it’s much more economical to manufacture “blueberry bits” or “berry-ettes” from petroleum-based dyes, hydrogenated oils, sugars, and other yummy fake ingredients.
So always watch for misleading advertising in commercially produced products claiming to contain blueberries – read the labels, and if they aren’t listed or are way down on the ingredient list, give them a pass. They won’t contain the flavor or benefits of the real deal.
These plants are easy to grow in temperate zones, with many species to pick from. Choose either the smaller shrubs known as “low-bush” or wild, or the larger ones that are referred to as “high-bush,” which are usually seen in commercial production.
Plump, juicy berries are the reward for your own backyard bushes – most of which are disease and pest resistant, and can produce an abundant yield for up to 20 years.
From the same family as rhododendron and azalea, they enjoy a slightly acidic soil and appreciate a mulch of pine needles in the fall.
They’re also a beautiful addition to your landscape, with creamy spring flowers, scarlet fall foliage, and red stems and twigs in the winter – wonderful in winter floral arrangements, or seasonal sprays and wreaths. It’s plant that just keeps giving!
North America is the leading producer of this beautiful fruit, and it’s celebrated throughout the summer with many festivals where you can join in the fun, taste the local samples, and pick your own.
Find a listing of 2015’s berry festivals in Canada, the UK and the US here.
That’s the conclusion of our look at the bountiful benefits of blueberries – and to get ready for the upcoming berry season, here’s a couple of recipes to enjoy their sweet flavor and beneficial properties.
Spicy Blueberry Jam – Sugar and Gluten Free
This blueberry jam is super easy and fast to make, and retains the health benefits of the berries with no added sugar, and no gluten.
It can be stored in the fridge for up to a month, or in the freezer for up to a year, and small jars make a great gift or stocking stuffers – so think about making a bit more of this healthy treat for your friends and family as well.
Blueberry Oatmeal Squares
These squares are sweet and tasty, with a great texture combo between the berries and oats. Make ahead as dessert for an outdoor cookout, and serve as is or with a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt.
You’ll need an 8” square cake pan to make this tasty dessert.
(1) Jeanie Lerche Davis, WebMD.com, Cranberries: Year Round Superfood, http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/cranberries-year-round-superfood
(2) Juliann Schaeffer, Today’sDietician.com, Latest Scoop on Berries…, http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/060113p16.shtml
(3) Dr. Joel Fuhrman, DrFuhrman.com, ANDI – (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index), https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/andi-food-scores.aspx
(4) NutritionData.Self.com, Blueberries, raw, http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1851/2
(5) Dr. Mercola, Mercola.com, Vitamin K: The Key Vitamin to use …, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/05/16/vitamins-d-and-k2-reduce-osteoporosis.aspx
(6) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Aedín Cassidy, Éilis J O’Reilly, Colin Kay et. al., Habitual intake of flavonoid subclasses and incident hypertension in adults, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/2/338.full
(7) TodaysDietitian.com, Jasenka Piljac Zegarac, PhD, The Power of Blueberries, http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/100614p42.shtml
(8) Acir.org, Getting the Blues for Health, http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=15489&news_iv_ctrl=2303
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.