Friday, June 17, 2011
Spotlight Food - Blueberries....
Blueberries -There are few things more enjoyable then kicking back on a beautiful summer day with a bowl of fresh berries at your disposal. Berries for me are the epitome of summer and while I happen to love them all - each for their own unique intrinsic value - if I were forced to pick my favorite, that honor would undoubtably be dispersed evenly between blueberries and strawberries. To me they are the perfect summer food. Sweet, juicy and refreshing. As good to eat for breakfast as they are to eat for desert.
Blueberries (genus Vaccinium) are perennial flowering plants that belong to the same family as the Cranberry, and Bilberry, the Azalea, Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron. They are one of the few fruits native to North America, and there are approximately thirty different varieties. The most commonly cultivated of which is the Northern Highbush Variety.
Highbush blueberries were first introduced to Germany and the Netherlands in the 1930's and have since spread to other European countries. Blueberries have also been introduced (more recently in some cases) into the Southern Hemisphere in counties like Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and South Africa. However despite the spread of blueberry cultivation, North America still remains the largest blueberry producer.
In Canada, in 2007 blueberries were the largest fruit crop produced nationally, occupying half of all Canadian acreage. British Columbia is the largest Canadian producer of highbush blueberries and the second top producing region world wide. With over 650 blueberry growers, and 17,000 acres of rich farmland devoted to growing approximately 80 million pounds of blueberries annually.
Nova Scotia is the largest producer of wild blueberries across Canada with a provincial production of over 40 million pounds annually. While Quebec is another large producer of wild blueberries with 27,000 tons in production in 2008 it now rivals the production of Maine in the United States. Combining the wild blueberry yields of Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the other major producing provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island; Atlantic Canada contributes approximately half of the total North American annual production of wild blueberries, roughly 68,000 tons.
In the United States, Maine produces 25% of all lowbush blueberries in North America, making it the largest producer in the world. While Maine is the leader of lowbush production in the United States Michigan is the leader of highbush production in the U.S. In 1998 Michigan’s blueberry production accounted for 32% of all blueberries eaten in the United States. Significant production of highbush blueberries also occurs in the states of New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
Blueberries have also played an important role in Native American/First Nations cultures for hundreds of years. Being used for everything from food, to medicine to clothing dye, but they were not widely consumed by the colonists until the mid-late 1800's, presumably because of their slightly tart flavor. Interestingly Blueberry cultivation did not begin until the beginning of the 20th century and were not commercially available until 1916, subsequently around the time that sugar became more widely available.
Blueberries are an real antioxidant powerhouse. The components of this tiny little berry work to neutralize free radical damage to the bodies collagen matrix (the base ingredients that make up all body tissue) of cells and tissue that can lead to cataracts, glaucoma, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, heart disease and cancer. Anthocyanins, the blue-red pigment in blueberries that gives them their beautiful color works to improve the integrity of the support structures in veins as well as the entire vascular system. Anthocyanins have been shown to enhance the effects of vitamin C, improve capillary integrity, and stabilize the collagen matrix. A study conducted at Oklahoma State University showed in several laboratory animal and cell studies that anthocyanins found in blueberries causes blood vessels to relax and increase production of nitric oxide which helps in maintaining normal blood pressure. Other animal studies found that blueberry consumption lowered cholesterol and total blood lipid levels.
In laboratory animal studies researchers have found that blueberries help to protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce the effects of age related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Researchers also found that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved both the learning capacity and motor skills of aging animals, making them mentally equivalent to younger animals of their species.
In addition to Anthocyanins, blueberries also contain another antioxidant compound called ellagic acid which
blocks the metabolic pathways that can lead to cancer. Blueberries are also high in the soluble fiber pectin which has been shown to lower cholesterol, as well as to prevent bile acid from being transformed into a potentially cancer-causing form.
Laboratory studies published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry show that phenolic compounds in blueberries can inhibit colon cancer cell proliferation and induce programmed cell death in cancerous cells, reducing the risk of colon cancer.
Among their rich supply of phytonutrients blueberries also contain kaempferol, a flavonoid that can help reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Research monitoring Flavonoid intake of 66,940 woman enrolled in the Nurse’s Health Study between the years 1984 and 2002 showed that woman who’s diets provided the most kaempferol had a 40% reduced risk of ovarian cancer, compared to woman eating the least amount of kaempferol-rich foods.
In addition to containing soluble and insoluble fiber which can help relieve both diarrhea and constipation blueberries also contain tannins, which act as astringents in the digestive tract to reduce inflamation. Blueberries also contain the same compounds found in their cousin the cranberry that help to prevent or eliminate urinary tract infections. These compounds reduce the ability of E. coli (The bacteria that is the most common cause of urinary tract infections) to adhere to the mucosal lining of the urethra and bladder, thus reducing the risk of urinary tract infections.
All in all there is a lot to be said for those tiny blue berries, and for something so small they sure do pack a powerful disease fighting punch! So be sure to stock up on your fresh blueberries this spring and summer season, especially if you’re lucky enough to live in one of the most fruitful growing regions. Then when winter comes around don’t be shy about stocking your freezer with bags of frozen berries so you can enjoy them all year round.
Honestly I like blueberries in almost everything. I love them in smoothies of course, and I love them in deserts such as pies, cakes, muffins, homemade sorbet or non-dairy ice cream. I love them in tarts, muffins, granola bars, energy bars, and cookies. I love them on oatmeal or cereal in the morning. I Love them as a simple snack just by themselves. They’re great in a fruit salad, and honestly they’re great in a green salad. Not only do they taste good but they make a wonderful presentation amongst all those leafy greens. They’re great to blend to make a salad dressing, or dipping sauce or glaze for tofu or tempeh. I’ve even made blueberry ketchup which was excellent. Blueberries are extremely versatile and wonderful in a multitude of ways so don’t be afraid to get creative. Whether you’re using fresh, frozen, freeze-dried, or dried I’m sure you’ll love them!
So stock up and healthy eating to you!