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Wild Blue

Blueberries pack a powerful health punch

By Frances A. Largeman, RD

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Blueberries are among the richest fruits in antioxidant content.

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Growing up in upstate New York, I remember eating blueberries the size of marbles. But those were cultivated berries -- not the tiny wild ones that are in season right now, as I discovered last year when I visited the wild blueberry fields in Maine. These petite gems don't grow on big bushes like the cultivated ones, but on small plants that barely reach my knees.

The wild blueberries at Wyman's farm near Bar Harbor, Maine, are one of the few U.S. crops still harvested by hand, using rakes to capture the fruit. It's tough work; the harvesters rake millions of pounds of berries in a 6-week period in late summer.

But the payoff is worth it: small berries with an intense, tangy-sweet flavor and supercharged health benefits. You'll find fresh wild blueberries only at this time of year, but you can get them year-round in the frozen section at your local supermarket for about the same price as regular ones.

Wild blueberries rank Number One in antioxidants for fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a score of more than 13,000 for total antioxidant capacity per. Cultivated blueberries are the second highest, with about 9,000 (for comparison, Gala apples score around 3,900).

There's no official recommendation for daily antioxidant consumption, but they are known to be important for fighting off free radicals in our body and from the environment. Free radicals cause damage to cells, disrupting the DNA and potentially setting up the body for disease. And the cell damage may be at the root of a host of health issues, from aging to macular degeneration to cancer to Alzheimer's disease. But antioxidants scavenge those free radicals in the body, neutralizing their effects. According to the National Cancer Institute, considerable research suggests that antioxidants may slow or possibly prevent cancer. They also fight inflammation, now known as one of the main causes of diseases like arthritis and cancer.

Besides blueberries, antioxidants are found in vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, and other fruits. Beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E are all classified as antioxidants. But blueberries also are loaded with lesser-known antioxidants. Anthocyanin gives blueberries their vivid color. And another blueberry antioxidant, epicatechin, which is also found in cranberries, can help keep your urinary tract healthy because it prevents bacteria from sticking to the lining of the bladder.

Recent studies in lab animals have also highlighted the cholesterol-fighting benefits of another blueberry antioxidant, pterostilbene. And blueberries also contain the antioxidant resveratrol, which is found in red wine, peanuts, grapes, and some berries. Studies are still preliminary, researchers caution, but resveratrol may help fight Alzheimer's disease, according to an ongoing study at the Litwin-Zucker Research Center for the Study of Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders in Manhasset, New York.

If all these health benefits aren't reason enough to add blueberries to your diet, though, the sweet-tart taste of a handful of fresh wild blueberries or a sprinkling of regular berries on your morning cereal should be.

Copyright 2006 Health magazine. All rights reserved. Published July 2006


Copyright 2006 HEALTH Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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