This is a guest blog by Dr. Chris Rosenbloom, registered dietitian and professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50.
Blueberry season is here! Every year I go berry picking at nearby farm where I can fill up baskets of fresh blueberries. After picking a gallon (or two or three) I freeze them to enjoy all summer long. I’ll share tips for storing berries and how to choose the best berries in your grocery store, if you are not lucky enough to pick your own, but let’s start by talking about the health benefits.
Blueberries are nutrient-rich, with 80-100 calories and 3 grams of fiber per cup, they are a powerhouse of antioxidants, vitamins, and plant compounds called anthocyanins (pronounced ann-though-sigh-a-nins), a sub-group of plant chemicals known as polyphenols. Native Americans used them not only as food, but as dyes, medicine, and food preservatives. Lewis and Clark noted that Native Americans preserved blueberries by smoking and pounding them with beef to make a jerky called pemican.
Blueberries for Blood Pressure
A recent study published in the Journals of Gerontology (gerontology is the study of aging) found that eating about a cup of blueberries twice a day lowered blood pressure similar to taking common blood pressure meds. The effect on blood pressure was both acute (happened quickly) and chronic (over time). Researchers found that the anthocyanins in blueberries relaxed blood vessels and reduced the stiffness that occurs in aging blood vessels. As we age, our blood vessels lose elasticity making it harder to control blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.
What does it mean for you?
Eat more blueberries! Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables and eating just 1 cup of berries equals 2 servings. I love them in yogurt, in smoothies, on cereal, in muffins or breads, or just as a snack. Eat berries but forgo taking a blueberry concentrate supplement (yes, they do exist). Researchers note that blueberries are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and the synergistic action between those nutrients and the anthocyanins might also be a reason for their health promoting powers. Food beats supplements.
Keeping the Mind Sharp
Berries are key food group of the MIND diet. The MIND diet stands for the official mouthful name of the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. A much catchier title is the MIND diet because the premise is that diet can delay cognitive decline. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago studied over 900 older adults from retirement communities for 5 years; those who had the greatest adherence to the MIND diet suffered less cognitive decline than those who did not. This was an observational study, meaning that it shows association with diet and brain health, but it doesn’t prove it. So, the researchers are in the midst of conducting a longer study with more rigor with adults in both Chicago and Boston (learn more about it by clicking here).
While the MIND diet can’t promise to prevent all cognitive decline with aging, it certainly can’t hurt as the plan is comprised of healthy foods that we should be consuming. The MIND diet includes whole grains, vegetables, olive oil, red wine (for those who drink alcohol), leafy greens, nuts, beans, berries, poultry, and seafood. From a culinary and cultural sensitivity perspective, food groups are so broad that they can be adapted to many different heritage diets and preferences. The foods to limit include meat, solid fats from butter, margarine and cheese, fried food in general but especially from fast food, and added sugars from pastries and other sweets. A key feature is consuming a minimum of two servings of berries each week. While all berries are healthful, blueberries have one of the highest contents of anthocyanins of all berries. For more on the MIND Diet, check out the recipes and book by my colleague, registered dietitian, Maggie Moon.
How to Choose and Store Berries
I had the opportunity to visit apple and pear orchards and blueberry farms in the Hood River area of the northwest last fall. I asked berry expert, Kyla Oberman, Director of Marketing, California Giant Berry Farms for tips on choosing and storing berries. Here are her tips:
Look for berries that are even in color, plump with a smooth skin, appear dry, and have a white powder on them. This is called Bloom and is a sign of freshness. Nor does it need to be wiped off, rather gently rinse all berries under tap water just before serving. Store berries in the refrigerator in their original container and eat 7-10 days after purchasing. Don’t wash your berries before you are ready to eat them because they will get mushy. Instead, rinse in cool water and blog dry right before using them.
Keep Berries Cold
Keeping berries cold is important. The cold chain for all berries, from the supply chain point of harvest to the grocery store is key to keeping berries fresh. Why are some berries in the front of the store not refrigerated? Oberman explained that there are a few reasons why stores do not display berries in refrigerated coolers: some simply do not have the refrigerated space, especially at the front of the store where most berries or other impulse purchased items are displayed. Berries set out at room temperature are traditionally known to have that delicious smell – so this is a tactic of the store to hit the shopper in the face with both the beauty of the berry display, complemented by the aroma and sweet smell of berries!
Oberman goes on to explain that if you were talk to most any produce manager, they will tell you that they rotate their berries FROM the dry table and back into refrigeration on a routine basis throughout the day – often as much as every hour. Her “pro tip” is always to make note of the non-refrigerated berries on display at the front but be sure to grab the berries from the refrigerated section in the back.
Freezing Fresh Berries
After I pick berries, I rinse them and completely dry them by spreading them out on clean kitchen towels. Then, spread them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment (or wax) paper and set in the freezer, uncovered for about 24 hours. Then transfer to freezer bags where they will be good for 7-10 months. Enough time to get to the next berry picking!
For more on all things berries, check out Alliance for Food & Farming and U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.