There are very few things in this world that would entice me to endure hours of backache, stooping and crawling around on my hands and knees, amidst swarms of mosquitos, wasps and other annoying insects but at the top of that very short list are blueberries. Their flavours range from mildly sweet to tart and tangy, with wild (low bush) blueberries generally having a more intense flavour than their cultivated (high bush) cousins. In Newfoundland Labrador, from mid-August to early fall, low bush/wild blueberries are plentiful and I for one just can't get enough of them!
Wild blueberries were an essential part of America's earliest inhabitants' diet, who dried them for fall and winter rations and used them to heal morning sickness, coughs and headaches. Native Americans believed that blueberries, which they referred to as 'star berries' because of the 5-point crown at the top of each berry, had magical powers and were sent by the Great Spirit to relieve hunger during times of starvation.
In terms of modern day consumption of berries, blueberries are second only to strawberries in popularity. They are repeatedly ranked as having one of the highest antioxidant capacities among all fruits, vegetables, spices and seasonings. Blueberries are nutritional stars, bursting with nutrition and flavour while being very low in calories and having a low glycemic index. There are more species of blueberries native to North America than anywhere else in the world. They are fragile little berries that should be washed briefly and carefully and then gently patted dry.
Blueberries can easily be frozen without damaging their delicate anthocyanidin antioxidants. However, the nutrients in blueberries do undergo some damage when they are exposed to temperatures of 350 degrees Fahrenheit/175 degrees Celsius, or higher, as in baking. To maximize benefits, go organic! A recent study showed organically grown blueberries have significantly higher concentrations of antioxidants than conventionally grown blueberries. It's also my personal preference to avoid the genetically altered blueberries that are in the supermarket year round - blueberries the size of grapes? There's something wrong with that and the flavour just isn't the same. I turn to frozen blueberries when fresh, organic aren't available.
So just what are some of the health benefits of blueberries? You might be surprised by the powerful punch these little blue gems pack, but here are some of the main benefits:
Enhance Memory - A study involving older adults with an average age of 76 years, 12 weeks of daily consumption of 2 to 2 and 1/2 cups of blueberries was enough to improve scores on different tests of cognitive function, including memory.
Reverse Age Related Physical and Mental Declines - Blueberries are one of the richest sources of proanthocyanidins that decrease free radical levels in the body that are linked to aging and disease, including wrinkles!
Improve Cardiovascular Function - By improving antioxidant defenses in body systems that need special protection from oxidative stress, blueberries help strenghten walls of blood vessels and they contain an enzyme that is associated with overall improved Cardiovascular function.
Improve Blood Pressure - Routine blueberry intake has been shown to signficantly reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressures in people with high blood pressure and helps maintain healthy pressures in those without high blood pressure.
Aid in Blood Sugar Regulation - Blueberries have a favourable impact on blood sugar regulation in people already diagnosed with blood sugar problems such as Type 2 diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Insulin Resistance.
Promote Weight Control - The catechins in blueberries activate fat-burning genes in abdominal fat cells.
Improve Vision - The anthocyanins in blueberries protect the retina in the eye from unwanted oxygen damage as well as sunlight damage.
Allergy Prevention and Management - Blueberries contain plentiful amounts of the phytonutrient quercetin and therefore may reduce the likelihood and severity of allergies.
Pain Reduction and Prevention of Blood Clots - Blueberries naturally contain salicylic acid, the natural version of aspirin, and, as such, thins blood preventing blood clots and reduces pain.
Management of Depression - Consumption of blueberries increases the production of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain, thereby helping to manage depression. Not only that but they are also helpful in the management of Parkinsons because people with Parkinsons have abnormally low levels of dopamine.
Reduction in Muscle Damage - Consumption of blueberries following overly taxing exercise can reduce damage to muscle tissue.
Anti-Cancer Benefits - Long term studies are ongoing with respect to the anti-cancer benefits of blueberries but preliminary findings are very encouraging in lowering the risks associated with breast, colon and esophageal cancers as well as cancer of the small intestine.
With so many health benefits, there's every reason to incorporate blueberries into your daily diet, whether that's by the handful on your porride, in a smoothie or perhaps pancakes. Toss a few on your salad, or in your yogurt, or all by themselves. While heating can damage some of the nutrients, other nutritional benefits remain intact, which makes things like blueberry crumble, cake, muffins, sauces and relishes viable options. Some of my favorite ways to use blueberries are:
Grilled Chicken Breasts topped with Blueberry Shallot Relish - chicken breasts marinated with garlic, balsamic vinegar, dried basil and olive oil, grilled and then topped with a Blueberry Shallot Relish of blueberries, shallots, balsamic vinegar, fresh basil, corriander and allspice....the aroma alone will knock your socks off!
Spicy Blueberry Sauce - perfect on your next sirloin, chicken, pork even fish burger. This combination of blueberries, onion, serrano pepper, balsamic, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and crushed red pepper flakes will take your burger to a whole new level!
Blueberry Cake - Baking is NOT my forté, not by a long shot. (I think it's because it's too precise of a science). This Blueberry Cake, however, is virtually foolproof and just the right amount of sweet!
Basil Blueberry Ricotta Pizza - perhaps my favorite way to do something unexpected with blueberries. All you need is pre-packed puff pastry, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oli, shavings of aged white cheddar, fresh basil, blueberries and spoonfuls of ricotta cheese. For lunch, as an appetizer or even dinner for one....an amazing blueberry treat!
Blueberry squares, blueberry jam, blueberry compote, blueberry Gorgonzola Salad, blueberries in a wam salsa over cod or talipia, instead of pork chops and apple sauce, why not pork chops and blueberry sauce, or perhaps infused with brandy for a beef flambé. (I'm channeling my inner Bubba Blue of Forest Gump fame!). The possibilities really are endless and you're only limited by your imagination. Don't be afraid to create. So what if it doesn't end up tasting the way you expected? Its not the end of the world. Be inspired...if these tiny little berries can carry so much nutritional weight, just imagine what you are capable of achieving!
Blueberries....easy, inexpensive, healthy AND delicious....what more can I say?