Berries Are Berry Good For Your Health
Berries Are Berry Good For Your Health

Berries are perhaps the easiest way to fulfill the fruit part of the "eat more fruit and vegetables" mandate.

Research has shown that people are more inclined to eat food in bite-sized portions, and berries come that way (packaged foods are OK as long as nature does the packaging). They're sweet but have a nice, low calorie count, partly because the water content is high.

Berries contain vitamins (C and a little bit of E, because of the seeds) and some lesser-known nutrients, but also, somewhat surprisingly, a fair amount of fiber. A cup of raspberries contains 8 grams, which is more fiber than you'll find in a serving of oatmeal.

But what makes berries stand out nutritionally (and visually) are substances called anthocyanins that give them their vivid red, blue, and purplish colors. Anthocyanins are antioxidants, substances that keep oxygen ions and other unstable molecules from stirring up inflammation and having a variety of other harmful effects.

Just how much of an effect antioxidants have on human health has been called into question, but there's still a large body of evidence that they're good for you, so foods that contain antioxidants are thought to promote better health.

Anthocyanins are concentrated in the skin of berries (as well as other fruits), and, generally speaking, the more intense the color, the higher the anthocyanin content, so blueberries and blackberries usually contain more anthocyanins than strawberries or raspberries, and wild berries have more antioxidants than their larger, paler, and domesticated relations.

Raspberries contain a lot of a substance called ellagitannin, which imparts flavor and has antioxidant properties that add to the effects of anthocyanins.

Evidence for berries having health benefits has come from three sorts of studies. First, a variety of lab and animal experiments have shown that berries or their extracts halt or interfere with disease processes of various kinds. A typical example is a report in 2010 that a blueberry extract protected rat brain cells from the toxic effects of a protein that has been linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Second, short-term studies in people have demonstrated positive effects on cholesterol profiles, blood sugar levels, and the like. And third, a handful of epidemiologic studies point to a correlation between high berry consumption and some favorable health outcomes.

But this is the kind of preliminary research that should come with a do-not-exaggerate warning. Moreover, a fair amount of the pro-berry research has been supported by growers' associations and others who stand to benefit from a belief that berries are extraordinarily healthful.

There's also some doubt about how bioavailable berry anthocyanins are, and whether our bodies really take advantage of all the properties they display in lab and animal experiments.

Should any of this matter on a summer day or night when there's a bowl full of berries on the table? Definitely not. Enjoy! They're delicious and, without a doubt, a solidly healthful food. But do wash them first. Berries can harbor viruses and other pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses. - Harvard Health Letter


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