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Blueberries: Nutrition, Facts, Growth, History

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blueberry recipes

Blueberries are a favorite fruit, loved for their sweet-tart taste, their spicy aroma and their unique indigo blue color. The good news is that we now love blueberries for our health as well as their taste.

Health Benefits of Blueberries - Nutrition and more Nutrition

Blueberries are rich in Vitamins A, C, E and beta-carotene as well as rich in the minerals potassium, manganese, magnesium. They are very high in fiber and low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. But this is just the tip of the nutritional iceberg, for recent studies tell us that of all fresh fruits and vegetables, blueberries provide the most health-protecting antioxidants, those valuable elements which prevent cancer-causing cell damage and may limit the changes wrought by age related diseases.

The properties of blueberries cross the blood brain barrier to effect these benefits. Antioxidants help to stop the production of free radicals. Free radicals are groups of atoms that impair the cells and the immune system which leads to disease. Anti-oxidants bind the the free electrons in free radicals.

Anthocyanins create the blue color in blueberries. They are water-soluble and will bleed into water (or on mouths and clothes). Anthocyanins are antioxidants, known to reduce heart disease and cancer in humans. They are found throughout the plant world, but blueberries are the highest of any fruit or vegetable. This substance is believed to combat E. Coli.

Chlorogenic acid is another antioxidant which may also slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream after a meal. Chlorogenic acid's antioxidant properties may help fight damaging free radicals.

Ellagic acid also appears to bind cancer-causing body chemicals, rendering them inactive.

Raspberries have more than blueberries. The largest amount of these compounds are to be found in the leaves.

Catechins are the phytochemical compounds that helped make a nutritional star out of green tea which is so rich in them. Current belief holds that their antioxidant effect diminishes the formation of plaque in the arteries. Further research is being done to see if they combat and/or suppress cancerous tumors and cell proliferation, but to date no evidence is solid.

Resveratrol is a substance that is produced by several plants. A number of beneficial health effects, such as anti-cancer, anti-viral, neuroprotective, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and life-prolonging effects have been reported for this substance. It is found in the skin of red grapes. Since wine is made from red grapes, the supply of resveratrol inherent in a glass of red wine, may explain the phenomenon known as the “French paradox.” This refers to the fact that the French ingest a lot of saturated fats, but have a low incidence of coronary disease, possibly due to their intake of red wine. This 'paradox' is more discussed than proven. Resveratrol is also found in peanuts, and other berries of Vaccinium species including bilberries and cranberries.

 

Pterostilbene is yet another antioxidant found in blueberries. Current belief holds that it may fight cancer and may also help lower cholesterol.

Oxalates are the one possible negative aspect of blueberries. Oxalates should not be eaten in high concentration as they can crystallize and cause kidney or gallbladder problems. Oxalates also slow the absorption of calcium into the system. Eat blueberries separately from calcium-rich foods. A two to three hour wait is sufficient.

The nutritional value of blueberries makes them one of the best foods we can eat. And if you live near a blueberry patch and have any ordinary bucket, gathering this humble berry is one of life's joys. Anyone who has gone blueberry picking as a child will carry the memory for life.

Most current studies have been limited to animals, but the findings would appear to be significant. Animals fed a diet of blueberry extract showed fewer changes in age related brain function which may mean better cognitive and motor skills. Yes, this means that blueberries may help the brain ward off dementia.  There are current studies world-wide (see note) to determine further effects on health and many believe that blueberries help the eyes, prevent urinary tract infections, lower cholesterol, protect against macular degeneration, and aid the cardiovascular system. These are significant health benefits and rank blueberries as one of the top foods to eat. Many of these studies have not arrived at a conclusion, and no single food is a cure-all, but looking at the list of phytochemicals in the blueberry, we are eager to eat them for health as well as pleasure.

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Purchase, Care and Storage of Blueberries

Fresh blueberries are available from May through October. Those available in other months are imported. Look for blueberries that are firm, and have a silvery-grey 'bloom.' This 'bloom' is a natural part of the blueberry, one that protects the skin just as humans protect theirs with emollients and creams. Lucky blueberries.

Like a healthy human being, a vibrant blueberry should have a little bounce to it. Shake the box when you buy them. If the berries don't move, they may be getting mushy, even moldy. The wonderful nutrients in blueberries are best sustained by keeping them cool, so purchase from a refrigerated section in the market and put them in your own fridge as soon as you get them home. (Better yet, pick them from the bush and plop as many in your mouth as you put in a pail.) And never, never wash a blueberry until you are ready to use them. You want to keep the 'bloom.'

You can freeze fresh blueberries. Do not wash them, but put them straight on a cookie sheet straight into the freezer. Once frozen, you can put them in a plastic freezer bag. You don't need to defrost blueberries to use them in baking, but it's best to thaw slowly in the refrigerator and drain well if you are using them uncooked.

Dried blueberries retain many nutrients and are wonderful added to fruit salads, oatmeal in the morning, granola. Sprinkled on salads they add color and beauty with their nutrition.

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History of Blueberries

Most of the foods listed as gifts from the new world to the old were of Mexican and South American origin. Blueberries are a North American species of the genus Vaccinium. They are found up and down the eastern seaboard from Canada as far south as Florida. Unlike the foods of the southern hemisphere, the blueberry did not cross the Atlantic to enliven the old world, perhaps because the old world was content with the berries that grew on their own native soil. The bilberry is such a close cousin that there is often confusion. Blueberries did not even jump to popularity with the colonists of North America. It was not until the Civil War that blueberries were widely used. Then they were canned and sent to the Union soldiers.

Blueberries have always grown in the wild. It was not until the last century that cultivation began. but they have become a main industry in the US and Canada, primarily throughout the Northeast. A lover of acid soil, blueberry bushes lie dormant in the cold winter, bursting to life in the spring with clusters of pinkish-white, star-shaped flowers, each one promising to become a luscious, indigo berry. The bushes themselves are are a colorful part of nature as the leaves turn red or yellow in the autumn, and when they drop with winter's chill reveal yellow or red branches, a happy touch of color in the graying landscape.

There are three main types of cultivated blueberry bushes. There is the High bush blueberry, which ranges across eastern America, as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as the northern areas of Georgia. The second most cultivated is the Rabbit eye blueberry, native to southern Georgian and Alabama and found even as far south as Florida. Low-bush berries, the third variety, are actually creeping shrubs that rarely grow over a foot tall, but are also used commercially.

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Native American Use of Berries

Native Americans have always used many species of berry. The Hopi called blueberries 'moqui' a term which meant spirits of the ancestors. Many tribes used dried berries to make puddings or smoked them to preserve them for use in the months of cold and scarcity. Pemmican was a combination of dried buffalo meat, fat and wild berries which the Native Americans used to barter with the fur trading companies. Pemmican was a brilliant source of nutrition - protein from the meat, vitamins from the berries, and calories (energy) from the fat.

Bilberries are related to North American wild blueberries as are huckleberries. The English colonists confused bilberries with blueberries, and many still do today. The early colonists found woods full of berries, as well as of edible mushrooms and many sources of game. Nutrition was easy for these colonists.

Lewis and Clark and Wild Berries

Considering the number of wild berry species that exist, we cannot be sure if the following extract from the Journals of Lewis and Clark,describes bilberries, blueberries or another form of native berry, but we do know that the Native Americans made good use of all berries. Bilberry or blueberry, this extract from the Journals of Lewis and Clark is too charming to omit.

On August 14th, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: "I now directed McNeal to make me a little paist with the flour and added some berries to it which I found very pallatable."

The following day, August 15th, 1805, he added, "This morning I arrose very early and as hungary as a wolf. I had eat nothing yesterday except one scant meal of the flour and berries except the dryed cakes of berries which did not appear to satisfy my appetite as they appeared to do those of my Indian friends. I found on enquiry of McNeal that we had only about two or pounds of flour remaining. this I directed him to divide into two equal parts and to cook the one half this morning in a kind of pudding with the burries as he had done yesterday and reserve the ballance for the evenig...on this new fashioned pudding four of us breakfasted, giving a pretty good allowance also to the Chief who declared it the best thing he had taisted for along time. "

 

Note: From the Nutrition and Food Science Department-CeRTA, Pharmacy Faculty, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain we have these study results: "Research has shown that fruits and vegetables containing high levels of polyphenolics (flavonoids) display high total antioxidant activity. Our laboratory found that various fruit and vegetable extracts, particularly blueberry (BB), were effective in reversing age-related deficits in neuronal signaling and behavioral parameters following 8 weeks of feeding, possibly due to their polyphenolic content. However, it was unclear if these phytonutrients were able to directly access the brain from dietary BB supplementation." (source - www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

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