In our garden right now, raspberry canes are abundantly dripping their soft red offerings, blackcurrants are shiningly dark and ready for harvest, and blueberries are slowly plumping up and turning a powdery blue. On our breakfast this morning we had strawberries and raspberries picked fresh. Yep, it’s summer, and yep, it’s heaven!
Berries: Strawberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Blackcurrants, Redcurrants, Boysenberries, Logan Berries, Elderberries, so many berries! And they’re really, really good for us right? Yes!…and no…let’s investigate.
If we want to get really geeky about it, we could say that botanically, a berry is defined as a fruit (without a stone) from a single flower with one ovary. If we used this definition however, we’d be talking about grapes but not about strawberries. We’d be talking about tomatoes but not about raspberries. So for the sake of this piece, when I write about berries, I’m talking common garden language, and the list above is a good guide as to which berries I’m referring to.
The exceptional good of berries is largely down to the phenomenal levels of antioxidants they possess. Berries are rich in flavonoids known as anthocyanins, which are not only antioxidant but anti-inflammatory too. The ‘cyan’ part of that word anthocyanins means ‘blue’, and they give berries their red, purple or blue colours. Sometimes this blue is so dark it could be black, which is why elderberries have the botanical name Sambucus nigra, nigra meaning black. Elderberries are not only amazingly rich in antioxidants, they also possess anti-viral properties, especially against influenza viruses.
Oxidation is what happens in our cells and tissues when free radicals go wild, causing what is known as oxidative damage. Oxidative damage is what causes rust in metal and what causes wrinkles on faces! Wrinkles are one of the most visible signs of oxidative damage, but this also happens on our insides and is a major player in the development in all manner of age-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, cataracts and hearing loss. Exercise can increase oxidation, as can air travel, pollution, radiation, smoking and…stress!
Antioxidants help to protect ourselves against this kind of damage, which can even happen to our DNA.
Plant extracts are at the cutting edge of antioxidant research, having way more to offer than synthetic vitamins here. Plants are phytochemically rich and complex, and some even have the ability to turn on our own superior cellular antioxidant mechanisms, as well as doing some of the work themselves.
We don’t need to look to exotic superfoods from other countries to support our bodies in this oxidative world though, we grow amazing berries right here. New Zealand blackcurrants have been shown to be one of the most powerful antioxidant-containing foods on the planet. Studies have shown how taking extracts of New Zealand blackcurrants before exercise, can improve exercise recovery, reduce inflammation and improve immune function too.
Berries can help to:
- Reduce oxidative damage
- Improve immune function
- Reduce inflammation
- Fresh berries also contain Vitamin C, essential for immunity, tissue repair, blood vessel integrity and waaay more!
So with all this awesomeness and all this antioxidant potential, what could possibly go wrong?
The answer, in short, is US. What humans do to berries is the basic problem with berries. Berries have one of the highest doses of pesticide residue of any fruit or vegetable, making them potentially problematic for anyone who is sensitive to sprays and chemicals. Strawberries regularly make the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of the most highly sprayed/contaminated produce of the year. This is because of the ways commercial strawberries can be grown, using multiple insecticides, fungicides, and fumigants. Basically, when you buy a strawberry from the supermarket, it is one of the fruits most likely to still have chemical residues on it, even after rinsing. Organic berries are obviously the safe answer here. Grow your own (they are actually very easy to grow) or source organic or spray-free berries where possible.
Another potential problem with berries only applies to some people. Berries, because they are so packed full of phytochemicals, can be reactive for some unlucky people. Berries are high in salicylates and strawberries are potentially high in histamine, so people who get symptoms from these naturally occurring chemicals may react to berries. Strawberries are the most likely of all berries to produce an actual allergic reaction, and this can be higher in those with a birch tree pollen allergy, as both share similar allergenic proteins.
In short, berries are action-packed botanical powerhouses of goodness! Get them while the sun is shining and eat them fresh. Eat them as is, in smoothies, on porridge, on chia puddings, in pancakes. Make jams and syrups for the winter or freeze them. A daily dose of berries is nature’s tastiest medicine!