Food As Medicine

Berry Bonanza: Exploring the Health Benefits of Nature's Superfruits

Berries are nature’s vibrant jewels, bursting with delightful colors and flavors while packing a punch of health benefits. From the sweet tanginess of strawberries to the rich, deep hues of blueberries and blackberries, these tiny fruits are not only delicious but also full of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. This article explores why adding more berries to your diet can be a delicious and rewarding choice for your health.

Cardiovascular Health

Berries are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, such as anthocyanins and flavonoids. These compounds help protect our cells from oxidative stress and reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease. You may be wondering what specific effects these delicious gems can have and how much you need to consume to reap the benefits. One study showed that the anthocyanins in blueberries increased an enzyme in blood vessels called nitric oxide synthase. This enzyme is responsible for decreasing the constriction of blood vessels, thereby allowing blood to flow easier and reducing blood pressure1. Multiple studies have illustrated that participants consuming blueberries and strawberries show significant reductions in oxidized cholesterol, which builds up in your bloodstream and on your artery walls1,2. Another important aspect of these two studies was that the participants consuming berries were only asked to consume between one to two cups of berries per day. Therefore, adding just a small amount of berries to your diet can positively affect blood pressure and cholesterol.

Cognition

Antioxidants have also been shown to positively affect brain health. The anthocyanins and flavonoids mentioned earlier are responsible for these effects. Fortunately, they can cross the blood-brain barrier and positively impact the brain and cognition. A recent study showed that greater intake of strawberries and blueberries was associated with slower rates of cognitive decline. This benefit was attributed to the greater intake of flavonoids, specifically anthocyanins3. A separate study showed a similar conclusion. Consumption of blueberry juice resulted in improved cognitive function, particularly word recall, and reduced depressive symptoms4.

Microbiome and Gut Health

One unique perspective on the impact of flavonoids and anthocyanins involves the microorganisms in our gut. The authors of a recent review suggest that flavonoids and anthocyanins may not be responsible for the health benefits seen from berries. Instead, these compounds reach the microbes in our gut, which metabolize them into smaller, more bioactive metabolites. While these metabolites enter our bloodstream and positively affect various parts of our body, the microbes also thrive, suggesting that berries and their metabolites can act as a pre-biotic. The authors concluded that the polyphenol compounds and their metabolites can fuel beneficial bacteria growth and inhibit pathogenic bacteria growth5.

In conclusion, grab a cup or two of your favorite berries next time you’re looking for a snack to benefit your heart, brain, and gut. They really are among the healthiest foods you can eat. Even in small amounts, they can have beneficial effects in many different ways. They are also delicious and easy to enjoy. Enjoy them fresh as a snack or dessert, top off your oatmeal, or add them to smoothies. These are just some examples of the many ways to enjoy berries. One of my favorite berry-friendly recipes is included below for some more inspiration. Aim to include a variety of berries in your diet regularly to reap their numerous health benefits and enhance your overall well-being. 

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble (adapted from Monkey and Me Kitchen Adventures)

Filling Ingredients:
4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 cups strawberries, cut in half (or quartered if large)
1/2 cup organic maple syrup
4 Tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla

Slurry Ingredients:
1-3 Tbsp cornstarch (or arrowroot powder)
2-3 Tbsp water

Crumble Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup almond flour, lightly packed
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup organic maple syrup
1/4 cup unsweetened almond butter

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Make the Crumble Topping– Place the rolled oats in a food processor to break them up, about 20 seconds. Then add all the remaining Crumble Topping ingredients to the food processor and process just until well combined, do not over-process them.  The Crumble Topping will form lumps and hold together when taking a small amount and pressing it into a ball. Set aside.
  3. Place all the Filling Ingredients into a skillet and bring to a boil, then immediately lower to a low boil. Simmer for 3 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, create a Cornstarch Slurry in a small bowl, whisk to combine, set aside. Increase the heat until the fruit syrup starts to boil, then add the cornstarch slurry and boil until it starts to thicken. Once it thickens, boil for a minute, stirring constantly, then remove the skillet from the stove.
  5. Place the rhubarb strawberry filling into an oven proof baking dish, then sprinkle the crumble evenly all over the top. Do not press it down.
  6. Place in a preheated 350 F oven for 20 minutes.
  7. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to cool on the counter for 20 minutes to allow the filling to set.
  8. Serve warm.

Tips:
*This recipe is very forgiving. Use whatever fruit you have or is in season, fresh or frozen. You can even use more than 8 cups of fruit because it cooks down quite a bit. 

*If you have nut allergies, you can substitute oat or whole wheat flour for the almond flour and any seed butter instead of the almond butter. 

1. Basu A, Du M, Leyva MJ, Sanchez K, Betts NM, Wu M, Aston CE, Lyons TJ. Blueberries decrease cardiovascular risk factors in obese men and women with metabolic syndrome. J Nutr. 2010 Sep;140(9):1582-7. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.124701. Epub 2010 Jul 21. PMID: 20660279; PMCID: PMC2924596.

2. Jenkins DJ, Nguyen TH, Kendall CW, Faulkner DA, Bashyam B, Kim IJ, Ireland C, Patel D, Vidgen E, Josse AR, Sesso HD, Burton-Freeman B, Josse RG, Leiter LA, Singer W. The effect of strawberries in a cholesterol-lowering dietary portfolio. Metabolism. 2008 Dec;57(12):1636-44. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2008.07.018. PMID: 19013285.

3. Pribis P, Shukitt-Hale B. Cognition: the new frontier for nuts and berries. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul;100 Suppl 1:347S-52S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071506. Epub 2014 May 28. PMID: 24871475.

4. Robert Krikorian, Marcelle D. Shidler, Tiffany A. Nash, Wilhelmina Kalt, Melinda R. Vinqvist-Tymchuk, Barbara Shukitt-Hale, and James A. Joseph. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2010 58 (7), 3996-4000. DOI: 10.1021/jf9029332

5. Lavefve, L., Howard, L. R., & Carbonero, F. (2019, November 15). Berry polyphenols metabolism and impact on human Gut Microbiota and health. Food & Function. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2020/fo/c9fo01634a 

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