Blueberries are the fruits of a shrub that belong to the Ericaceae family, which includes cranberry, bilberry, azalea, mountain laurel and rhododendron. Blueberries grow in clusters and range in size from a small pea to a marble, with flavors ranging from mildly sweet (cultivated) to tart and tangy (wild). They're bursting with nutrition and flavor, while being very low in calories.
The skin of the blueberry comes in colors of maroon, purple-black, and blue-black, with a white/grey waxy 'bloom' protective coating, the flesh is semi-transparent with tiny seeds. Blueberries that are cultivated in the United States are available from May through to October, while imported berries may be found at other times of the year.
The Different Varieties of Blueberry
- Highbush Blueberries: are the most commonly cultivated variety, they are the type you're most likely to find in food stores and supermarkets. The Highbush blueberry can grow as high as 12 feet in its native uncultivated state, but it usually grows to around 4 to 7 feet when cultivated.
- Lowbush Blueberries: are commonly referred to as 'wild blueberries, they tend to be quite low growing, hence the name 'lowbush' and typically grow to around 2 feet in height and often as low as 8 to 12 inches from the ground. This variety produces a smaller size berry than the highbush and although it can be found growing wild in many parts of the US, it's rarely found in supermarkets and local stores.
- Rabbiteye Blueberries: are descended from the south eastern native plants, they are tolerant of heat and humidity and are best grown where winters are mild.
- Saskatoon Blueberries: are the perfect choice for cold climates, they are the hardiest of the varieties and can survive temperatures of minus 60 degrees F. Saskatoon blueberries prefer a near neutral soil pH of between 6.0and 7.0. This variety has almond-scented fruits which can easily pass for true blueberries
More than half of all highbush blueberries are used for the 'fresh' market, they are the ones you see in the little cartons on supermarket shelves, or in your local shop. The rest are used as a prime ingredient in a wide range of food products such as health bars, pastries, yogurt and muffins, as well as many desserts and fruit dishes. Blueberries are very versatile, they are easily preserved by canning, drying and freezing and can be juiced or made into jam.
Blueberries are at their nutritional peak when eaten straight from the bush but that isn't always possible unless you're fortunate to grow your own. Having said that, with increasing demand for blueberries across the globe, blueberry producers are skilled at getting their blueberries from bush to shelf within as short a time as possible so that the nutritional value is kept intact.
Where Do Blueberries Come From?
The cultivation of blueberries can be traced back to the Native American tribes where the use of blueberries was widespread amongst their communities, but commercially grown blueberries didn't arrive in Europe until the early 20th century. It was in the early 1900s, at a time when people didn't believe that wild blueberries could be domesticated, that Elizabeth White, the daughter of a New Jersey farmer and Dr Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, teamed up and set out to identify and cultivate wild blueberry plants with the most desirable properties.
Coville and White produced the first commercial crop of blueberries in New Jersey in 1916 and it's thanks to their desire and determination to cross-breed the bushes they found, and create vibrant new blueberry varieties, that we can buy and enjoy blueberries 100 years later in the 21st century.
"Wow! .. Blueberries are the Superfood of the 21st Century"
Recent studies showing the health benefits of eating blueberries have raised the status of this 'superfood' and driven blueberry consumption to a new high. After many years of research on blueberry antioxidants, the evidence is showing that blueberries can improve memory and the potential benefits for the nervous system and brain health are amazing to say the least.
Other studies have shown that blueberries can be frozen without doing damage to their delicate anthocyanin antioxidants. Researchers have found that there is no significant lowering of the overall antioxidant capacity or anthocyanin concentrations when blueberries are frozen at or below temperatures of 0 degrees F(-17 degrees C) for periods of between 3 to 6 months.
Nutritional Breakdown of Blueberries
One cup of fresh blueberries contains 84 calories, 0 grams of cholesterol, 1.1 grams of protein, 0.49 grams of fat, 21 grams of carbohydrate and 3.6 grams of dietary fiber (14% of daily requirements).
Blueberries are a very good source of copper and fiber as well as vitamin K, vitamin C, and manganese. The Anthocyanin’s that are responsible for the blueberry's color, contribute to the numerous health benefits of consuming this fruit.
Recent studies compared organically grown blueberries with non-organically grown blueberries, and unearthed some very impressive results. The study found that the organically grown berries had significantly high concentrations of total phenol and anthocyanin antioxidants than the non-organic berries, so if you want the most out of your blueberries, go for the organically grown variety.
Health Benefits of Eating Blueberries
What is surprising about research and studies into the amazing health giving properties of the blueberry, is its whole body relevance. It's not only the cardiovascular system that has been shown to have strengthened antioxidant status following consumption of blueberries, it is virtually every body system studied to date. It's this whole body antioxidant support that helps blueberries stand out as an amazing antioxidant fruit.
Blueberries decrease the risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. They can help to lower body weight overall and promote a healthy complexion and hair. The iron, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and vitamin K in blueberries, all contribute to building and maintaining bone structure and strength. Iron and zinc also play crucial roles in maintaining the strength and elasticity of bones and joints.
- Cardiovascular Benefits: in repeated studies of blood composition, consuming 1-2 cups of blueberries per day over the course of 1-3 months, has been shown to improve blood fat balances, including reduction in total cholesterol, raising of HDL cholesterol, and lowering triglycerides. Eating blueberries helps to protect the blood components like LDL cholesterol from oxygen damage, which could lead to the eventual clogging of blood vessels. The ability of blueberries to increase plasma antioxidant capacity seems to continue as blueberry intake goes up above everyday levels.
- Blood Pressure: reducing sodium in your diet is essential for lowering blood pressure. Blueberries are naturally free of sodium and contain potassium, calcium and magnesium, all of which have been found to naturally lower blood pressure. The blueberry's fiber, potassium, foliate, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and phytonutrient content, together with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health. The fiber in blueberries helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood and decrease the risk of heart disease.
- Diabetes and Blood Sugar Benefits: recent research into the benefits of blueberries, has found that they have a low GI index, which is good news for blood sugar regulation in people already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. In one study on individuals diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it was shown that the consumption of at least 3 servings of a low-GI fruits such as blueberries per day over a 3month period, saw significant improvement in their regulation of blood sugar. Their blood levels of glycosylated hemoglobin, or HgA1C were used as the standard of measurement in this study.
- Eye Health: in preliminary studies, the anthocyanin’s in the blueberry protects the retina from unwanted oxygen damage, they have also been shown to help protect the retina from damage caused by sunlight.
- Anti-cancer Benefits: research into the health effects of blueberries is increasingly focusing on anti-cancer benefits. The powerful antioxidants of blueberries along with their various phytonutrients and vitamin C and A, can help to protect cells against free radical damage by inhibiting the growth of cancer cells and decrease inflammation in the body. Types of cancer already studied in regard to the consumption of blueberries include breast cancer, colon cancer, oesophageal cancer, and cancers of the small intestine. Blueberries are also known to slow down some other cancers including prostate, pancreatic and colon cancer, they also contain foliate, which plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair, therefore preventing the formation of cancer cells from mutations in the DNA.
- Improving Mental Health: studies have been carried out on older adults with an average age of around 76 years. Over a period of 12 weeks, ¾ lb. of blueberries were consumed in the form of 1 cup of juice daily, this was shown to be enough to improve scores on two different tests of cognitive function, including memory. This study shows that blueberries appear to be beneficial, not only for the improvement of memory, but for slowing down or postponing the onset of other cognitive problems associated with the ageing process.
- Nerve Cell Benefits: nerve cells have a naturally high risk of oxygen damage and they require special antioxidant protection at all times in life. Their ability to send information throughout the body depends on the presence of balanced oxygen metabolism, and that balance cannot be achieved without ample intake of antioxidant nutrients. By lowering the risk of oxidative stress in our nerve cells, blueberries help to maintain smoothly working nerve cells and healthy cognitive function.
How to Select and Store Blueberries
Choose blueberries that are firm and have a bright, uniform hue with a whitish bloom. When buying pre packed blueberries, give the container a shake to check that the berries move around freely, if they don't then it's a sign that they may be damaged or soft and moldy. Avoid choosing berries that appear dull in color, or are soft and watery in texture. Water will cause blueberries to decay quickly so they should be free from moisture in the carton. When buying frozen berries, shake the bag gently to make sure that the berries move freely and are not clumped together, which may suggest that they have been thawed and refrozen.
How to Prepare Blueberries
Blueberries are quite fragile and can easily be crushed, so try to be very careful when washing them. Blueberries can go quite 'mushy' if washed and then stored, so it's better to wash blueberries just before you use them so that the protective 'bloom' coating will not be removed or damaged. Organic blueberries just need a quick rinse and then patted dry, if you can verify they have been organically grown, then try not to wash them at all.
Blueberries retain their maximum amount of nutrients and taste when they are eaten fresh, that's because their nutrients, which includes enzymes, vitamins and antioxidants, are damaged when exposed to temperatures (350°F/175°C and higher) used in cooked recipes. If you're using frozen blueberries in a recipe that doesn't require cooking, then thaw well and drain before using. Always freeze freshly picked blueberries without washing them or adding sugar.
Blueberries and Weight Loss
Blueberries are high in dietary fiber which plays an important role in weight loss and management. Dietary fiber functions as a "bulking agent" in the digestive system, making you feel fuller for longer, which ultimately lowers your overall calorie intake.
Blueberries and Your Skin
Collagen is the skins natural support system, it's what gives the skin its elasticity. Collagen relies on vitamin C as an essential nutrient that helps to prevent damage caused by sun, smoke and pollution. Vitamin C is necessary to help collagen's ability to smooth wrinkles and improve the overall texture of the skin. Just one cup of blueberries a day, will provide 24% of your vitamin C requirements.
How to Incorporate Blueberries into Your Diet?
Blueberries are great added to low fat milk or yogurt for a tasty healthy smoothie, or added to a fruit smoothie for that extra helping of nutrients.
- Blueberries are great added to low fat milk or yogurt for a tasty healthy smoothie, or added to a fruit smoothie for that extra helping of nutrients.
- Porridge is even healthier with a handful of fresh blueberries sprinkled on top. Try adding strawberries and banana as well, for an alternative to sugar.
- Greek yogurt with a topping of fresh blueberries and honey makes a delicious dessert and very easy to prepare.
- Blueberries mixed with low fat crème fresh is a tasty filling for pancakes or as a topping for waffles.
- Add a twist to salad with dried blueberries, spinach, walnuts and feta cheese.
- Fresh or dried blueberries give a zingy taste to muffins and cakes, or blend them with a little water and use them as a syrup to top desserts.
- Fresh blueberries also make a tasty tangy spread for a toast topping.
In fact there are so many uses for blueberries, the only thing that limits them is your imagination.
The Blueberry Phenomenon
Since the discovery of their many health benefits, Blueberries have exploded onto the health scene and claimed the number one spot as a 'superfood'. The Blueberry is one of the healthiest foods we can eat, thanks to its high concentration of antioxidants that help to combat diseases such as cancer and heart disease, as well as having the ability to mop up free radicals in our bodies. With its many benefits on the human body, both inside and out, the blueberry is set to remain a top seller in the fruit department.
This little berry packs a huge punch and delivers protection and health giving properties to so many of our body systems from inside and out, helping us to maintain a healthier lifestyle. With researchers finding more and more new and exciting evidence regarding the effects of Blueberries on our health, the future is looking bright and Blueberry-licious!!
Main photo by Kyle McDonald