(BLUE)-Berry Good News.

Fruit’s chemical makeup is medicinally loaded.

By: Steve LaRue

Many chefs know blueberries only as small purple splotches on pancakes and/or muffins sold in coffee shops at advanced prices. (But worth it) they don’t grow here in the West, but anyone who spent a childhood in Wisconsin or further back east to New England or Canada’s Maritime provinces remembers stripping them from low bushes, munching on their tart goodness, especially the smallest floured ones----and probably permanently staining their clothes with their dark purple juice.

But who knew then that they might be a sort of super food? Evidence gathered over the last two years has mounted that certain chemicals existing in wild blueberries help in the fight against cancer and heart ailments, among other numerous benefits. Most recently, the chemicals have been separately cultured for the very first time.

Mary Ann Lila Smith, a University of Illinois biologist, has fed the chemicals, separately and in combination, to rats to gauge blueberries’ health benefits. So far, the results have been most surprising, she said at a recent meting in San Diego, California of the Congress on In Vitro Biology. These chemicals have only recently been proven as very strongly medicinal, and it is very amazing that they are medicinal in so many ways,” she said.

Smith is a member of a group that calls itself the “brain-berry” research team. Other researchers in the group come from Tufts University in Massachusetts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rutgers University, and the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture, Canada. Research published by this team describe a range of complex plant-generated chemicals called polypenolics, which include the chemicals that give blueberries their distinctive intense blue hue, others in their skin that result in a tart astringent taste, and still others that reside in their tiny blueberry seeds.

The chemicals appears to immobilize unstable chemicals called oxidants that damage membranes and other tissues. The polyphenolics also appear to improve circulation, combat the development of heart disease, and inhibit enzymes associated with the development of cancers, to name a few. “Their anti-oxidant properties help reduce the degeneration that goes along with aging, both motor deficits as well as cognitive dysfunction, and they are cardio-protective. So, this is an amazing group of compounds found in one place.” Smith said.

Wild blueberries, which are smaller and often tarter than most commercially grown blueberries, as you might expect, appear to be an ideal package for these plant chemicals, Smith also said. “These polyphenolics are very complicated molecules in the plant, and they interact with each other. They are much more powerful when they are put together in the berry than when they are separated by extraction and administered separately.”

Keen eyesight

Current research is focusing on how this family of chemicals works in the human body. Two berry species are thought to pack the most potent levels of the beneficial chemical combination: the American wild blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, and the European blueberry, Vaccinium myrtillus, called bilberries in England.

Military folk medicine has credited bilberries with powerful health properties for the past half century, Smith said. “British pilots in World War II would eat bilberries before they would go out flying because they thought there was a marked difference in their night vision, and this is well documented.” “We now know from our research that the bilberries were actually working on the capillaries going into the eye and thus improving night vision. By making blood flow easier.” British pilots had an urgent need for good night vision in part because night bombing was the Royal Air Force’s strategic role during much of the conflict.

Smith stated her team’s experimentation with rat’s fed a diet of dried wild blueberries, called blueberry chow, suggests that eating bilberries and blueberries is very beneficial in a number of other related ways. In their laboratory tests, rats were allowed to become familiar with a maze containing a small platform. When the rats were returned to the maze, they found it full of water; the platform was the only place to remain above the water level. “It is most amazing that the rats that had been fed the blueberry chow could remember where the platform was, when other rats of the same age that had been fed healthy rat chow could not remember its location .

The blueberry chow also appears to improve the rats’ coordination, a factor that also may have benefitted the British pilots.

In this test, the rats were required to advance up a sloping, narrow inclined rod in order to obtain their food. “The older rats have a tendency to fall off because their motor coordination is gone. But, the older rats that eaten the blueberry chow (you guessed it) can make it up the rods without a problem.” Says our lady, Smith. Of course, age finally catches up with the test rats as it does with British pilots.

Smith said her research (brain-berry gang) is seeking now to better quantify the blueberry factor. One thing seems clear as right now; the Wild blueberries are best. They grow abundantly in Maine, New Hampshire, other parts of New England and upstate New York. And in the Maritime provinces of Newfoundland and New Brunswick, and nearby areas.

The whole fresh or frozen berry is best. The reason is that some of these chemicals are localized in the seeds and some are localized in the skin, and their interaction seems to be the really important thing.”

The ideal human dose: ½ a cup of blueberries per day


Ask Marilyn vos Savant

I read that the only edible fruits native to North America are the blueberry, the cranberry and the Concord grape. Could this be true?

Not quite! Also native to North America are persimmons, pawpaws (similar to bananas), strawberries, raspberries, currants, huckleberries, blackberries, and more. But such popular fruits as apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries all come from other lands. We can say, “As American as apple pie,” only because we bake them into pies. Otherwise, we’d have to say, “As Asian as apples.”

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