Delicious Berries Fight Disease

Toss a memory-booster into your smoothie and a cancer-fighter into your cereal. When it comes to berries, it's true: Good things do come in small packages. And the summer months are the perfect time to add these naturally sweet, nutritional super foods to your diet.

Health Heroes

Eat one to two cups of whole berries three or more times per week to take advantage of their fiber, vitamin C, folic acid and phytochemicals, suggests nutrition researcher Christine Sardo of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. Sardo notes that berries, particularly black raspberries, are loaded with ellagic acid--a phytochemical shown to inhibit the growth of cancer in laboratory studies.

Researchers at Ohio State gave rats a cancer-causing compound and then fed some of the rodents a diet rich in black raspberries. After 30 weeks, the raspberry-eating rats showed a significant reduction in cancers of the mouth and esophagus and an 80 percent decrease in the number of tumors in the colon. Early results of a study involving people at high risk for esophageal cancer also show positive results. It's not just the ellagic acid in berries that seems to fight cancer, says Sardo. "The numerous phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fiber may act together for disease prevention."

According to Karen Collins, nutrition consultant to the American Institute for Cancer Research, ellagic acid provides "several different anti-cancer methods at once: It acts as an antioxidant, it helps the body deactivate specific carcinogens, and it helps slow the reproduction of cancer cells."

Berries also help fight other health problems, including heart disease. Eating blueberries may make your heart's blood vessels less vulnerable to inflammation and oxidative stresses. And some studies have linked a diet high in cranberries or blueberries to healthier cholesterol levels.

Strawberries and blueberries may also slow the age-related decline in memory and learning, reports a USDA-supported study. Rats were fed one of three diets: a standard diet, a diet fortified with blueberry extract equal to a daily one-cup portion for humans, or a diet supplemented with strawberry extract equivalent to a daily one-pint serving. The rats were then given age-inducing treatments. Compared to the rats on the standard diet, supplemented rats in both berry-fed groups performed better on tests of memory and learning. In a separate study, rats fed blueberries for two months showed improvements in balance, coordination and memory.

Berry Bests

Each berry offers different health benefits. Here are some nutritional highlights:

Blueberries: Compared to other fruits, blueberries are among the highest in antioxidant capacity. This tiny fruit's free-radical fighters include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, anthocyanins and polyphenols. Laboratory studies have found that anthocyanins inhibit the growth of lung, colon and leukemia cancer cells. Blueberries may also ward off urinary tract infections. One cup of blueberries has 84 calories and three grams of fiber.

Cranberries: These tart fruits contain proanthocyanadins, which prevent bacteria from sticking to cell walls, helping prevent urinary tract infections. The same compound blocks plaque formation on teeth and lessens gum disease. Cranberries are very high in flavonoids, a family of phytochemicals thought to protect the heart, and may also inhibit the bacteria associated with ulcers. One cup of cranberries has 44 calories and four grams of fiber.

Strawberries: A spring and summer favorite, strawberries are very high in quercetin--one of the flavonoids important in heart health--and vitamin C. A single cup serving of strawberries gives you more than a day's supply of vitamin C. Quercetin has also been studied for its potential cancer-fighting abilities. One cup of strawberries has 46 calories, three grams of fiber and 85 milligrams of vitamin C.

Raspberries: One cup of these delicate berries supplies one-third of your daily fiber recommendation. They contain more ellagic acid than other berries and are thought to be potent cancer fighters. They're also a rich source of lutein, a phytochemical important in preventing age-related eye disease. One cup of raspberries has 64 calories, eight grams of fiber and 167 micrograms (one thousandth of a milligram) of lutein.

Blackberries: In season in late summer, blackberries contain a flavonoid called C3G, which has inhibited the growth of skin and lung tumors in animals. Like raspberries, they are a rich source of lutein and have almost as much fiber. One cup of blackberries has 62 calories, seven grams of fiber and 170 micrograms of lutein.

The More the Better

There are infinite ways to add berries--frozen, fresh or dried--to your daily diet. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Add fresh or dried berries to hot or cold cereals.
  • Add blueberries to corn muffin mix or add dried cranberries into your bran muffin batter.
  • Use dried cranberries and blueberries as you would raisins. Toss them into trail mix, sprinkle them over a green salad, or pop them straight into your mouth.
  • Make berry parfaits by layering fresh berries with vanilla pudding or frozen yogurt.
  • Dress your salad with a blueberry or raspberry vinaigrette.
  • Add blackberries to barbeque sauce.
  • Top grilled fish with strawberry or cranberry relish.
  • Blend frozen berries, bananas and plain or vanilla yogurt for a quick breakfast smoothie.
  • Flavor jarred applesauce with thawed frozen berries.
  • Use a food processor to mix fresh berries and sugar or artificial sweetener with light cream cheese. Spread over a bagel.
  • Whip frozen berries, juice, sugar or artificial sweetener and vanilla extract in a food processor for a cool, sweet dessert similar to sorbet.

Picking and Storing Tips

To handpick berries, visit a local farm when it's not too hot, either in the morning or evening. Otherwise your berries may become soft and bruise easily. Pick only ripe fruit, and look under the leaves for the best ones.

Refrigerate immediately, but don't wash the berries until just before eating or cooking, and never soak them or they'll become waterlogged. Pat the delicate fruit lightly with paper towels to remove moisture.

If you have more berries than you can use, freeze the extra for baking or smoothies. Place washed, dry berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze for an hour. Once frozen, store them in a freezer bag or a plastic container. When baking with frozen berries, don't thaw them first or the color will bleed into your batter.

Recipes

Blue and White Salad

  • 2 tablespoons raspberry-flavored or blueberry-flavored vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh mint leaves, finely minced
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh blueberries
  • 8 cups mixed salad greens, torn
  • 2 ounces crumbled reduced-fat feta cheese

To make the vinaigrette, place the vinegar, broth, oil, honey, mint and 10 blueberries in a blender. Blend at low speed until emulsified. Transfer to a jar with a tight lid and refrigerate. Vinaigrette will keep for two to three days. Just before serving, toss mixed greens and remaining blueberries in a large bowl. Shake vinaigrette until thoroughly blended, drizzle over salad and toss lightly. Sprinkle feta on top and serve. Makes four servings.

NUTRITION FACTS Per serving: 134 calories, 12 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 9 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 4 grams fiber, 252 milligrams sodium.

Strawberry-Blueberry Muffins

  • Canola oil spray
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup fat-free milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 12-cup muffin tin with canola oil and set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together oil, applesauce, sugar and eggs. Add vanilla, blueberries and strawberries. In separate bowl, blend together flours, baking powder and salt. Using a half portion at a time, alternate folding the flour and then the milk into the applesauce mixture until blended. Scoop batter into prepared tins. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown or when inserted toothpick comes out dry. Allow muffins to cool for 20 minutes before removing from pan.

NUTRITION FACTS Per muffin: 165 calories, 28 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 2 grams fiber, 133 milligrams sodium.

Grilled Fruit with Strawberry Dip

  • 4 peaches, halved or quartered
  • 8 chunks pineapple
  • 4 plums, nectarines or papayas, halved
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Dip

  • 8 ounces part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 tablespoons plain non-fat yogurt
  • 1/4 teaspoons dried, ground ginger
  • 8 strawberries, halved

In a blender, puree cheese, yogurt, ginger and strawberries until smooth. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate for two hours. Thread fruit onto eight skewers, and mix vinegar and sugar in a small bowl. Grill fruit until lightly browned, turning frequently and brushing with vinegar mixture every few minutes. Serve with strawberry dip on the side. Makes eight servings.

NUTRITION FACTS Per serving: 106 calories, 18 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams protein, 2 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 2 grams dietary fiber, 40 milligrams sodium.

Recipes courtesy of the American Institute for Cancer Research, aicr.org.


Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for Hampton Roads Center for Clinical Research in Norfolk, Va.

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