My 83-year old dad is a blueberry fanatic. Each year, he and my mom pick and freeze blueberries from a farm at the foot of Mount Si, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in the Northwest. His annual goal is to pick and freeze 100 pounds, enough to take advantage of blueberries’ health benefits year-round. He eats blueberries every day to help keep his macular degeneration at bay, his blood pressure down, and his memory sharp. It’s not surprising that my dad’s blueberry habit seems to be helping, given the plentitude of research on the health benefits of blueberries and other kinds of berries.
Known for their bold, attractive colors and deliciously unique tastes, berries are one of the richest sources of natural antioxidants and polyphenols. Polyphenols are the largest and most important group of phytochemicals in people’s diets. Polyphenols such as flavonols, phenolic acids, anthocyanins, and procyanidins are found in particularly high concentration in various berries.
Blueberries, in particular, are very high in two specific polyphenols known for their health benefits: proanthocyanidins and anthocyanidins. These are thought to be the primary polyphenols responsible for blueberries’ health benefits. Proanthocyanidins and anthocyanidins are considered nature’s most potent antioxidants, but their powers have been found to extend far beyond the suppression of free radicals.
In addition to polyphenols, berries contain other important nutrients such as vitamin C, folate, potassium, and soluble fiber. Berries are relatively low in sugar and have a low glycemic load, meaning they do not cause sharp spikes in blood sugar the way some natural fruits do. Plus, in contrast with some of the other excellent dietary sources of polyphenols, such as chocolate, wine, and tea, berries contain no fat, alcohol, or caffeine.
Regular berry consumption has been linked to the prevention of some of the most common and debilitating chronic diseases.
Berries for heart and blood vessel health: Berry consumption is associated with improved cardiovascular disease outcomes. Eating berries helps the heart and blood vessels by reducing blood pressure, raising “good” HDL cholesterol levels, decreasing oxidative damage, lowering inflammation, reducing blood clotting, and improving the functioning of blood vessel walls.[1,4] Proanthocyanidins, the polyphenols responsible for blueberries’ health benefits, for example, have been shown to help treat and prevent cardiovascular disease by relaxing blood vessels and preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
Berries for brain health: Recently, the effects of berry consumption on the brain and cognition have been studied and results indicate that regular berry consumption can be an effective therapy for treating and preventing several diseases related to nervous system degeneration and age-related brain dysfunction. Studies show that eating berries can enhance cognitive performance in humans.
Berries for immune boosting and cancer protection: Frequent consumption of berries is also associated with improved immune function and cancer outcomes.
Berries for eye health: Because of their high concentration of anthocyanidins and proanthocyanidins, berries like blueberries and bilberries have been studied and found to improve vision and help prevent eye inflammation, cataracts, and macular degeneration.
Summer is the time for foraging for wild berries, picking berries at your local berry farm, or buying them in large quantities to freeze for later eating. If possible, choose wild berries. Although all berries are superfruits, wild berries are typically more loaded with health-promoting polyphenols compared to their commercial counterparts, which tend to be bigger and sweeter, but not as intensely pigmented or flavorful. After wild, your next best option would be certified organic and local; and next best after that would be local with minimal spray but not necessarily certified organic.
The best way to freeze depends on the berry, but generally involves spreading unwashed berries out on a large tray or cookie sheet in order to sort and pick out any bad one and remove any stems. Then chill on cookie sheets if possible before transferring to bags or containers for storage in the freezer. Rinse frozen berries before eating. Blueberries will thaw in minutes by simply soaking in room temperature water.