Take your pick: In summer, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and other berry treats practically beg to be eaten right off the bush. Even better, recent research exalts berries as nutritional superstars. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its list of the richest antioxidant foods (tested were fruits, vegetables, cereals, breads, nuts, and spices), wild blueberries rocked the charts at the top spot, with cultivated blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries all placing in the top 20. Not bad for tiny fruits that pack only 66 to 80 calories a cup!
Dig into a bowlful to reap benefits for every part of your body.
Berries help your heart.
- Science: Eating blueberries enhances blood flow by increasing artery flexibility, according to Amy B. Howell, PhD, an associate research scientist at Rutgers University (Arzneimittel-Forschung, 1991, vol. 41, no. 9). Researchers also believe that fruits and vegetables rich in anthocyanins, the plant pigments that make blueberries blue and raspberries red, significantly reduce blood pressure and may have anti-inflammatory properties (Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, 2004, no. 5).
- Eat more: Drizzle frozen blueberries and raspberries with a little maple syrup. Microwave for one minute or until berries are warm and thawed completely. Serve over pancakes or French toast.
Berries improve eye health.
- Science: Too many hours at the computer or reading under poor light? Research indicates that anthocyanins may improve vision, especially night vision and eyestrain symptoms (Survey of Ophthalmology, 2004, vol. 49, no. 1). "All berries contain a healthy dose of anthocyanins," notes Howell, "so it's most important to consume them daily, no matter what type of berry."
- Eat more: Add a cup of fresh blueberries or boysenberries to a mixed green salad with Gorgonzola cheese crumbles and balsamic vinaigrette.
Berries foil bacterial growth.
- Science: Although urinary tract infections (UTIs) can have a genetic component, one recent study showed that frequent consumption of any kind of berry juice correlated to a decreased risk of UTI recurrence (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003, vol. 77, no. 3). Cranberries in particular "contain a special type of proanthocyanidin that prevents bacteria from sticking to the walls of the urinary tract," says Howell. "If bacteria cannot stick to the bladder wall, they cannot grow and cause infection."
- Eat more: Stir chopped fresh or dried cranberries and chopped fresh mint into rice pilaf or couscous.
Berries boost your brain.
- Science: Berries may help prevent age-related mental decline and even Alzheimer's disease. Researchers found that older rats performed better in motor coordination and memory tests when fed blueberries, compared with a control group that didn't receive any berries (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005, vol. 81, no. 1 Suppl). In addition to anthocyanins, "berries supply a wealth of phytochemicals, including flavonoids, caffeic acid, and ellagic acid, which protect against highly reactive oxidants that damage the brain," says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2005).
- Eat more: Toss together fresh marionberries, raspberries, and blackberries; serve over granola with vanilla yogurt, sprinkled with toasted almonds and minced crystallized ginger.
Berries may protect against cancer.
- Science: Raspberries' ellagic acid, a type of phytochemical, helps kill certain types of cancer cells, and black raspberries show promise in helping to prevent colon cancer (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2002, vol. 50, no. 10; Nutrition and Cancer, 2001, vol. 40, no. 2). And there's a new berry on the block: The antioxidant-stuffed Brazilian açai (ah-SAH-ee) berry has piqued researchers' interest for its potential to destroy human leukemia cells in laboratory tests (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2006, vol. 54, no. 4). Tasters liken the deep purple berries, a sustainably harvested rain forest crop, to chocolate-covered strawberries. Look for frozen açai concentrates (such as Sambazon Açai) in the frozen-foods section of natural groceries.
- Eat more: For an easy smoothie, blend together 1/2 cup açai or cranberry-blueberry juice, 1/2 cup fresh blueberries, 1/2 cup plain yogurt, and a frozen banana.
Melissa B. Williams is the editor in chief of Healing Lifestyles & Spas magazine.