I once lived where blackberries grew wild along the fringes of our woods. For a few days in midsummer, if we could get to the bushes before the squirrels did, my young sons and I would have a berry feast. Very little fruit made it into the colanders we carried; we mostly grazed like forest animals. For us, berries seemed an incarnation of summer itself, their brightness bursting both sweet and tart against our teeth.
What we didn’t know, of course, was that we were doing our bodies a big favor, too. Tiny as they are, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries can pack a powerful punch against heart disease, cancer, and urinary tract infections. And to my fading brain’s delight, berries appear to help keep our neurons firing as we age.
Berries are virtual wellsprings of nutrients, each loaded with fiber, vitamins C and A, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. What’s most interesting about them, though, is not the individual nutrients each type contains, but what those nutrients can do together. “It’s the combined effects of the compounds in a berry that do the work,” says Mary Ann Lila, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “They act through different mechanisms simultaneously, and that’s what makes them so powerful.”
Scientists didn’t reach this conclusion about the magic of the mix all at once. Initially, they turned up evidence for the antioxidant powers of anthocyanins, the dark blue and red pigments that give berries their color. These nutrients play a key role in repairing cells harmed by unstable molecules called free radicals—damage that accumulates as we age and appears to contribute to cancer and heart disease. Of 40 fruits and vegetables recently tested for cancer-fighting antioxidants, researchers found that blueberries topped the list—and the other varieties weren’t far behind.
What’s less well-known is that berries have anti-inflammatory properties as well. We can thank a group of elderly rats that dined regularly on blueberries for that. When James Joseph, director of the Neuroscience Laboratory, part of the USDA Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Boston’s Tufts University, measured the cytokines, or markers of inflammation, in the brain tissue of these rats, they matched the levels seen in younger rats.
But even berries’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties don’t tell the whole story. For instance, when Joseph and psychologist Barbara Shuckitt-Hales placed blueberry-fed rats in a water maze, they found that the greater the number of different blueberry phytochemicals that reached the rats’ brains, the better their performance.
Joseph and his colleague David Morgan also looked at mice genetically bred to have brain damage similar to that in Alzheimer’s patients. The brains in mice who feasted on blueberries still developed disease-causing plaque, says Joseph, but the signals between the neurons involved in learning and memory improved, preventing some of the changes associated with Alzheimer’s. “What we’re seeing,” said Joseph, “is the combined effect of these different families of nutrients.”
For berry grazers, such news offers more reason than ever to gobble a mix of berries whenever we can—in a salad brightened with dried raspberries, a frozen blueberry smoothie, or simply by the sweet summer handful. Most experts recommend eating a variety of berries at least two to three times a week, and daily, if possible–the more the better.
In the Kitchen
Berries are wimpy when it comes to spoilage, but there are plenty of ways to prevent them from going bad. Try storing reserves in the freezer for the long off-season so you won’t waste all that goodness on a mere summer fling. Whether or not you freeze your extras, the following suggestions can help you get the best out of your berries at the market, in your kitchen, and all year round.
Buy organic berries. Because they’re a favored snack of insects, commercial berry crops tend to carry a heavy pesticide dose. Besides, organic often tastes better, too.
Opt for deep color. The deeper the reds and blues in your berries, the more plentiful the disease-fighting antioxidants.
Eat them quickly. “You probably have up to a week to eat them,” says Birdsall. “If they remain unblemished and plump, you’ll still get the nutrients.” Store them unrinsed. If you don’t eat them immediately, remove any bruised ones, and refrigerate the rest in open, uncovered baskets, unrinsed. Rinsing makes them rot more quickly.
If you can’t buy fresh, buy frozen. Or freeze your own. To freeze, wash and dry berries before putting them on a cookie sheet and loading them into the freezer. Once thawed, they’re a bit mushy, so toss them frozen into smoothies, blend them into pancake or muffin batter, or use them in pies. You’ll get the same nutrients as if you were eating them fresh.