A member of the Ericaceae family of the genus Vaccinium, the blueberry plant is a deciduous shrub. It exists as three different varieties known as highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), rabbiteye (Vaccinium ashei), and southern highbush (Vaccinium formosum), and each variety thrives in different conditions and areas. The Highbush normally does well in cold climates and self-pollinates, but the size of the fruit and yield is better with cross pollination. The Rabbiteye prefers the warmer climate of southern United States, and does not self-pollinate. It requires two different plants for pollination. The Southern Highbush is a cross between the other two. It too self-pollinates but size and yield is better when there is cross pollination.
Blueberries have long been accredited with longevity and wellbeing. Recent studies indicate that when compared to all other vegetables and fruits, blueberries offer the maximum antioxidants for health protection. These elements are known to inhibit cell damage that can lead to cancer, in addition to minimizing age related diseases.
Native to North America, blueberry plants mostly grew in the wild along the eastern seaboard, starting as far north as Canada and extending all the way down to Florida in the south. The bilberry is a close cousin that is frequently mistaken for blueberries, as are ‘huckleberries’. One way to distinguish them is by colour. Blueberries are always blue, while huckleberries and bilberries are generally red or purple.
Blueberries were mainly consumed by the Native American tribes and not very popular with the newcomers. The Hopi knew them as ‘moqui’ roughly meaning spirits of the ancestors. The native tribes dried the berries for use in puddings or even smoked them to use during the winter months when food was scarce. An amalgamation of fat, buffalo meat, and berries known as Pemmican, was used by the Native Americans for barter with companies trading in fur. A diet of Pemmican provided excellent nutrition with protein from the buffalo meat, energy form the fat, and vitamins from the berries.
Blueberries gained popularity during the American Civil War, where canning started so that they could be dispatched to Union Soldiers. With the start of their cultivation in the twentieth century, blueberries became a major industry in Canada and the United States.
Blueberries are a powerhouse of nutrients. Abound with vitamins A, C, E, and K, minerals potassium, iron, magnesium, and manganese, and phyto-nutrients Carotene-ß and Lutein-zeaxanthin. They are high in fibre and contain almost no saturated fats or cholesterol.
The large variety of antioxidants found in blueberries gives them many of the health benefits the berries are famous for. The Anthocyanins in the blueberries provide them with their characteristic blue colour which is water soluble. This turns the mouth, contact with skin, and fabrics blue upon contact. These antioxidants are found commonly in the plant kingdom, but blueberries have the highest concentration. Another antioxidant found in blueberries is Chlorogenic acid. It is believed to help fight free radicals and decrease the speed with which glucose is released into the bloodstream. Ellagic acid is thought to attach to cancer causing chemicals making them ineffective. Blueberries also contain plenty of catechins, the very same phyto-chemical that makes green tea a star. The antioxidant properties of catechins are believed to prevent plaque formation in arteries. Pterostilbene is still another antioxidant that is believed to help fight cancer and bring high cholesterol down. Finally there is Resveratrol. It offers a number of health benefits like anti-cancer, aging, plus inflammatory benefits along with life extending, and neuro-protective advantages. All this makes blueberries one of the best foods one can enjoy.
How to Use Blueberries
While blueberries make a tantalizing addition to pancakes, muffins and cheesecakes, by far the best way to fully benefit from their nutritional value is to consume them fresh. This can be done in the following ways:
- Combine fresh blueberries with yogurt for a nutritious breakfast or snack that provides plenty of protein, calcium, fibre, and vitamins. This will surely give you a great energy boost.
- Add a cup full of fresh blueberries to breakfast cereal. Not only will this contribute to a well-balanced diet, but it will also give you with a great start to any day.
- Blueberries can be eaten on their own, or they can be added to granola or trail mix for a delicious snack.
Blueberries are naturally very sweet tasting and can even cover the flavour of some veggies that may be added to smoothies. Being dark coloured, blueberries usually turn smoothies into very appealing purple shades. These qualities make them ideal for combining with other products to create great tasting drinks. The blueberry & yoghurt rave recipe below is an example of one such treat.
Blueberry & Yogurt Rave Recipe Ingredients:
- 1 cup of blueberries
- 1 cup of blueberry yogurt
- 1 teaspoon of honey
- 1/2 cup of ice
Place ice, honey and yogurt in a blender and blend for 30 seconds at medium speed. Add the blueberries and blend for another 30 seconds. That's all there is to it.
A large number of independent clinical studies are being carried out on blueberries to fully understand their benefits. A study published by the Harvard School of Public Health, found consuming three or more servings of blueberries each week cut down heart attack risk in women by 33%. Researchers credited this to the high content of anthocyanin in the berries, which keep the arteries dilated to counter plaque accumulation.
In another study on the effects of blueberries and cognitive regression, Elizabeth Devore of Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, found that consuming blueberries on a regular basis helped to reduce cognitive weakening. The trial made use of over 16,000 women from one of the largest studies in the US on women’s health. The study concluded that eating as little as one serving of blueberries a week helped regress cognitive decline by many years.
According to a study headed by Dr. Rui Hai Liu (a Professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.), it was determined that antioxidant activity of blueberries was better than two dozen other fruits tested. Among those fruits were pomegranates, cranberries, red grapes, strawberries and apples. Antioxidants are linked with cancer prevention, anti-aging and heart benefits.
A number of studies relate the consumption of blueberries to cancer prevention. An especially difficult to treat form of breast cancer called Triple Negative Breast Cancer, was found to be inhibited with the use of blueberries by scientists at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, California, U.S.A.. In another study carried out at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, by Mary Ann Lila, Ph.D., found that constituents in blueberries may be valuable in inhibiting different stages of cancer.
Intestinal bacteria play a positive role in our digestive and immune health. Researchers from Universities of Milan and Maine, headed by Dr. Stefano Vendrame, found through clinical trials that regularly consuming blueberry drinks favourably promoted the ‘good’ bacteria ‘Bifidobacteria‘.