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Byline: Mariko Thompson Staff Writer

Compared to the mundane banana or the ubiquitous apple, getting people to eat berries has never been a tough sell. Their summery sweetness makes them an irresistible snack. Their brilliant colors provide the perfect accent to any culinary presentation. And they're easy to incorporate into breakfast, lunch or dinner.

It hardly seems fair to their fruit and vegetable brethren that there could be more to berries' appeal.

Yet health benefits alone should find berries a place on your shopping list. Berries are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. What's really earned berries a following among nutrition experts are those deep purple, blue and red pigments containing potent disease-fighting antioxidants.

Dr. Steven Pratt counts blueberries among the 14 powerhouse foods in his book, ``SuperFoods Rx.'' Pratt is a fan of all berries. But he elevated blueberries because they're readily available and have been the subject of solid scientific research.

``There's enough research to put blueberries on the pedestal compared to other berries,'' says Pratt, an ophthalmologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. ``The synergy of hundreds of different known and unknown nutrients and phytochemicals make them a powerful food to prevent disease.''

Critics excoriate low-carb diet plans for eliminating many fruits. But berries get the thumbs-up from the low-carb Atkins diet as well. As the fruit lowest in carbs, the berry is an important component of the Atkins approach, says Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and research for the Atkins Health and Medical Information Service. After a two-week induction phase, berries are added back to the diet, she says.

``The whole principle behind controlling carb consumption is to avoid spikes in blood sugar from high-carb food,'' Heimowitz says. ``Berries offer all of the health benefits of fruit without the high-carb or high-glycemic load.''

Though nutrition experts laud the berry, they also warn that there are no miracle foods. The idea behind books like ``SuperFoods'' is to tilt eating habits toward foods packing the greatest nutritional punch as a safeguard against disease. Eating foods high in antioxidants may protect the body against unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals. These molecules can cause cell damage, which may contribute to chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

On a test developed by USDA scientists at Tufts University in Boston to measure antioxidant levels, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries scored highest among fresh fruits. Berries contain anthocyanins and ellagic acid, both cancer-fighting compounds. They're high in vitamin C, an antioxidant that lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, says Bettye Nowlin, a registered dietitian and Calabasas-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

In addition to antioxidants, berries are rich in a soluble fiber called pectin, which helps reduce the bad form of cholesterol. Many berries also contain potassium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure, she says.

Berries come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. While they share common health benefits, each berry retains unique qualities, Nowlin says.

--Blueberries have the highest level of antioxidants compared to other berries. Studies suggest that the nutrients in blueberries may help maintain memory, healthy skin, and eyes.

--It's not an old-wives tale. Cranberries really do help prevent urinary tract infections. Certain phytochemicals in cranberries appear to prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract. This anti-adhesive property also may prevent the development of certain types of ulcers and periodontal disease.

--Among the berries, strawberries offer the highest levels of vitamin C. Eight medium-sized strawberries provide 160 percent of the recommended daily allowance.

--Blackberries contain folate, which helps to prevent certain birth defects as well as certain cancers and heart disease. Blackberries also provide iron, which is vital for the production of hemoglobin.

To get the health benefits, it doesn't matter if berries are fresh, frozen, canned or dried, says Janie Hibler, author of the ``The Berry Bible,'' to be published in April. Hibler, a Portland resident who collects wild berries on hikes, has found 175 different ways to cook with them. Her recipes include a blackberry smoothie, a raspberry and lime soup, a salad with tenderloin pork and warm strawberry dressing, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

``People can eat berries year-round,'' she says. ``Not just in the summer, and not just for dessert.''

Mariko Thompson, (818) 713-3620


The berry facts

--Some berries are smooth-skinned, such as the blueberry, gooseberry and currant. Others are called ``aggregate'' fruits, meaning they're made up of small clusters. These include the raspberry and blackberry. The strawberry, which grows from the base of the flower instead of the ovary, is not considered a true berry.

--Berries vary not only in size and color but in sweetness. Cranberries, currants, elderberries and gooseberries are too tart to be eaten raw and are mostly used in jams, jellies, sauces and other sweetened forms.

--Fresh berries are highly perishable and should be kept no longer than two days. After purchasing a box of berries, remove soft, overripe berries for immediate consumption. Discard smashed or moldy berries. Blot the remaining berries gently with a paper towel. Store them in a shallow container lined with paper towels.

--To freeze your own berries, spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place berries in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer the fruit to a heavy plastic bag. Keep for up to a year.

--Strawberries can cause some people to break out in hives. The substance that triggers the allergic reaction hasn't yet been identified.

Source: ``Wellness Foods A to Z'' by Dr. Sheldon Margen and the editors of the University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter.


5 photos, box


(1 -- cover -- color) berry wellness

Small fruits pack a big nutritional punch

(2 -- 3) For a quick, tasty - and potent - dose of vitamin C, turn to strawberries, top. Eat eight and you've hit 160 percent of the recommended daily allowance for this essential nutrient. Blueberries, above, are highest of all berries in antioxidants.

(4 -- 5) no caption (berries)

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer


The berry facts (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 15, 2004

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