Strawberries have been called "angels of the earth" with "little green wings spreading toward heaven." The author wasn't far off whether talking about the taste or health benefits of strawberries, blueberries or any number of luscious, colorful spheres of goodness, usually ending in the word "berry."
Not everything named "berry" is in fact a berry, however. A botanical berry by definition is the fruit produced from a single ovary. This does include blueberries, gooseberries, elderberries, cranberries, grapes, currants, tomatoes, avocados and bananas. It doesn't include blackberries, raspberries or strawberries.
This technicality hasn't stopped them from becoming summertime favorites. Pies, jams, shortcakes, tarts and other goodies flood picnic tables throughout the world. Strawberry shortcake is the Colonists' take on Native American strawberry bread made with corn meal.
Which one of these is not like the other? Correct—strawberries are not botanically classified as berries, but “accessory fruit.” Blueberries, grapes and avocados, though, are true berries.
Strawberries and blueberries are ranked one and two, respectively, in popularity. Both have been eaten for millennia, though humans only began commercially cultivating them over the past 300 years.
There are more than 600 varieties of strawberries, botanically an "accessory fruit." They are ready for picking from April until July, both cultivated and wild. The cultivated berries are larger, and the small, wild berries have more concentrated flavor. When picking or purchasing, look for medium-sized berries rather than the very large ones because they, too, will have more flavor.
Once a French engineer brought back a South American strawberry plant and hybridized it in the early 1700s, the fruit became a delicacy for the elite. One woman in Emperor Napoleon's court, Madame Tallien, liked to bathe in strawberry juice, using 22 pounds of berries every bath.
She may have had something there. Ancient Romans used strawberries to treat depression, inflammation, gout, liver and spleen ailments, throat infections, kidney stones and bad breath. Today research has confirmed that strawberries and blueberries especially are packed with flavonoids and phytonutrients including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and strawberry's potent dose of Vitamin C is great for the skin. Most berries contain the same substances but to a lesser degree. The list of benefits is extensive.
Flavonoids seem to be the standout stars of the package. In plants, these substances protect cells from environmental threats and help the plant grow strong and healthy. In humans, researchers are finding that flavonoids hone in on certain areas and processes of the body, specifically protecting against cardiovascular disease, cognitive degeneration and cancer.
Some of the latest studies, including one long-term study at Harvard University, point to flavonoid sub-class anthrocyanins (which also give fruits and vegetables their rich, dark pigments) as being responsible for cardiovascular benefits and even decreasing the risk of heart attack by 32 percent in women. Numerous other studies have shown berries to have significant positive effects in lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which are all factors of metabolic syndrome, and the anti-inflammatory properties help protect vascular walls.
Scientists are finding more evidence for berries' effects on brain and cognitive degeneration. The brain has a mechanism termed "autophagy" which determines and regulates various cell processes to maintain optimum health. Part of the function of autophagy is to "clean out" protein bundles that accumulate in the brain and eventually cause synaptic cells to degenerate, leading to cognitive deterioration and dementia. It seems that the anthrocyanins promote autophagy, eliminating the harmful protein bundles.
Research is ongoing for the effects on various types of cancer, but results regarding berries' concentrated antioxidants are positive. Blueberries are being used in research on breast, colon, esophageal and small intestine cancers. Strawberries are being studied in regard to aiding breast, cervical, colon and esophageal cancers.
Most of the research has found that eating 3 to 4 servings per week (generally 1 to 2 cups per serving) of fresh or frozen berries will provide measurable benefits. Some of the more dramatic changes occur when the diet includes at least 1 cup per day of strawberries or blueberries. For maximum value, nutritionists recommend eating berries as close to harvesting or purchasing as possible. In strawberries, for instance, after two days the Vitamin C and antioxidants begin losing their potency, and the berries begin to deteriorate.
Heating blueberries and strawberries does decrease their effectiveness. However, researchers have found that freezing does not harm the desirable properties, so berries can be enjoyed all year. The best way to freeze berries is to lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place the sheet in the freezer until the berries are frozen through. Then put them in a freezer bag and back into the freezer for up to six months.
Researchers have found an interesting property of strawberries: they can be useful in regulating blood sugar. Studies show that spikes are lower when 1 cup of strawberries is consumed with a meal, even with the equivalent of up to 6 teaspoons of sugar, in both healthy subjects and those with Type 2 diabetes. The strawberry, a member of the rose family, also has the highest Vitamin C content of any fruit. It is also the only fruit with its seeds on the outside.
Blueberries are members of the heath family, as are mountain laurel, rhododendron and the azalea. In researching eye health, scientists have found that the antioxidants in blueberries not only protect the retina from oxygen damage, but they also protect it from sun damage.
Blueberries are native to North America, and the United States grows more than half of the global blueberry supply. Most of these are the native highbush variety, but Maine is the world's leading producer of lowbush berries, native to Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia.
It's high season for blueberries in the Ohio Valley. At Kilgore Farms, off of State Route 214 near I-470, Robert and Becky Keefer have been cultivating two acres of blueberries for 23 years. Robert explains that they have four different varieties that ripen at consecutive intervals, thus extending their growing and selling seasons.
He notes that berries in the store are picked green or just as they turn blue. This doesn't allow them to fully ripen and develop flavor. At Kilgore Farms as the berries turn blue, he covers the bush with netting to keep birds away and allows the fruit to develop sugar for another 10 to 14 days. Customers pick their own berries for maximum freshness. At this time of year the farm is open from 9 a.m. to dark, and updates are posted on Facebook at "blueberries at Kilgore Farm."
Pretty, flavorful and versatile for adding to meals, berries are powerful health foods that aren't hard to swallow.
Valenti can be reached at email@example.com.