Wild blueberries—an antioxidant champion


10,000 years ago when the glaciers over Maine receded, among the first plants to spring up were wild blueberry bushes. They spread prolifically in the cool, acidic soil and perhaps this ancient foundation instilled in them the lasting nutritional qualities that wild blueberries are known for today.

Numerous comparative studies have shown that ounce for ounce those small post-glacier berries contain astounding amounts of antioxidants and micronutrients—more than any other fruit!

Antioxidants delay the aging process, prevent, reduce or speed up the healing of infections, battle against invading ‘bad’ bacteria, help maintain appropriate blood sugar levels and protect against cancer and heart disease. Antioxidants fight oxidative stress which is linked to chronic diseases and premature aging.

Interestingly, USDA studies found that wild blueberries have higher cellular phenol antioxidant capacity than cultivated blueberries.

Antioxidants are powerful aids in protecting and improving our health, no matter what age we are. They maintain our immune system and combat free radicals which damage our body’s cells and DNA, thus helping our nervous system and brain health. But in the last decade one particular focus has been on reducing the ravages of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive diseases. One widely reported study told of adults age 76 and older with cognitive problems who were given blueberry juice daily for 12 weeks. During that period their cognitive ability improved substantially.

The USDA studies indicated that including wild blueberries in the daily diet improved motor skills, elevated mood and reversed some short term memory loss in adults of various ages suffering from cognitive deterioration. Blueberries appeared to be the ONLY berries that improved motor skills!

We’ve all heard that carrots are good for eye health, but it appears that blueberries are too!

Numerous studies have found that wild blueberries, with their high level of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, are helpful for vision.

One interesting study followed a group of fighter pilots whose night vision vastly improved after several weeks of consuming daily doses of blueberries. Scientists believe that a blueberry-enriched diet may have the potential to help prevent the retinal deterioration that can lead to serious eye disorders and diseases such as macular degeneration.

In other health areas, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health  have found indications that a daily consumption of potent anthocyanin-rich berries such as  blueberries and strawberries may reduce the risk of heart attack in women by as much as a third.

And blueberries in particular may be a worthy adversary in the battle against a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer known as Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC).

The bottom line? Berries, and particularly wild blueberries, are good foods to include in your regular diet.

Blueberries are members of the Ericaceae family, which includes cranberries, bilberries, huckleberries, whortleberries, azaleas and rhododendrons. Blueberries occur naturally in East and North-Central North America, with Maine the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world. “We don’t plant our wild blueberries,” explains University of Maine blueberry expert David Yarborough. “We manage them.”

Local Indians are known to have gathered wild blueberries more than a thousand years ago, for taste and health, consuming them to ease stomach problems, and grinding the root to make a tea for easing childbirth. They called them ‘star berries’ because of the star-shaped blossom at the end of the berry, and added the abundant ‘star’ berries dried, or fresh, to soups, stews and meats the year around. A nourishing staple food called Sautauthig was made by combining dried blueberries, ground to powder, with cornmeal, honey and water.

After blueberry season was over, the natives regularly burned the area to kill off unwanted insects and weeds.

Bears also delighted in wild blueberries, favoring them above most delicacies–with the possible exception of honey! To this day they ignore most other food and travel miles in season to gorge at a wild blueberry patch.

Beginning in the early 1800s, the delicious and plentiful little wild blueberries became an important part of the diet for European settlers, who also adopted them for the same medical practices as the natives. They even copied Sautauthig, usually adding milk, butter and sugar.

Early medical books included advice for using blueberries to purify the blood and treat coughs.

The abundant Maine blueberries remained a strictly local food until the Civil War spurred a huge fruit demand for Union troops. This created a thriving enterprise for the settlers remaining at home, who harvested and shipped out thousands of pounds of wild blueberries to the front lines.

Wild blueberries are known as ‘Lowbush’ blueberries. Until the late 1800s it was not thought that blueberries could be cultivated. But Elizabeth White, the daughter of a New Jersey farmer, was determined to create commercial blueberries for the world. She teamed up with Dr. Frederick Colville and the two of them identified wild blueberries with the most desirable traits, crossbred the bushes and created new varieties.

White and Colville produced the very first ‘Highbush’ commercial crop in 1916 out of Whitesbog, New Jersey—the foundation of the huge commercial blueberry market today. (In fact, as their health benefits have become known, blueberry consumption has doubled in the last decade!)

Highbush blues are now grown in many countries, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, New Zealand and Australia, and are the type of blueberries most commonly sold in supermarkets.

However, the U.S. is the world’s largest producer, supplying half the global supply of blueberries. Major blueberry producing states are New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon and North Carolina.

Canada is second to the U.S. in blueberry production, both wild and cultivated, with half its fruit acreage devoted to blueberries. Nova Scotia is Canada’s champion blueberry producer.

Maine is still the primary U.S. source of wild or ‘Lowbush’ blueberries, which can be found (usually frozen) in some supermarkets and health food stores.

Tests have shown that there is no reduction in the anthocyanin antioxidant content of frozen or dried blueberries.

One thing to keep in mind is that U.S. conventional blueberries are among the 12 fruits and vegetables that absorb the highest residue of pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). So, if possible, consume organic blueberries whenever possible; and, when supplementing, choose quality supplements listing organic blueberries.


Sources for this article include: wildblueberries.com, prweb.com, yahoo.com, bangordailynews.com, University of Vermont Extension Service, umaine.edu, Wikipedia, blueberrycouncil.org, whfoods.com.

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