Berries: An Ounce of Prevention

A feast for the eyes as well as the palate, berries have moved beyond their traditional summertime slot to year-round availability, both fresh and frozen.

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Photo courtesy of the Produce For Better Health Foundation.

By Christine Filardo, M.S., R.D.
Produce For Better Health Foundation


When it comes to taste, millions of us put raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries at the top of our list of treats. Years of bumper crops, increasing numbers of growers and improved quality and shipping of fruit from the southern hemisphere feed the flames of our berry passion with a now endless season for the jewel-like fruits.

The best news is a now year-round availability provides consumers with an excellent opportunity to add to their already increased options for enjoying health-promoting, disease-fighting fruits and vegetables. Berries in particular offer a wide range of important nutrients and phytochemicals, all of which spell better health through food.

Sixty percent of American adults are obese or overweight. One-third of our children are overweight or at risk for being overweight. This is more than a cosmetic problem. Obesity increases a person’s risk for cancer, heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Fighting the obesity epidemic effectively requires diets packed with foods that are nutrient-dense without being calorically dense. Berries, as well as other fruits and vegetables, do this and taste great too. There’s a lot of health punch in those pint-sized powerhouses (see table in attached pdf file).

 
Anthocyanins are antioxidants which are responsible for the beautiful color of these and other berries. They are also being studied for their ability to prevent the decline of mental acuity.

Phytochemicals:
Increasingly important players in the world of nutrition, phytochemicals are the subject of thousands of studies aimed at learning more about their effect on health. Unlike traditional nutrients, a lack of phytochemicals is not linked to deficiency diseases such scurvy or night blindness. Phytochemicals are, however, proving to possess an ability to significantly impact health, either alone or in combination with traditional nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Phytochemicals impact health by a variety of mechanisms. For example, they keep blood cells from sticking together, and they act as part of numerous complex chemical reactions governing the body’s systems. One of the most studied aspects of phytochemicals, however, is their ability to act as very powerful antioxidants.

Antioxidants neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are byproducts of normal bodily functions, but without antioxidants to slow them down they do serious damage to cells and tissues. Over a period of years this can lead to a number of diseases.

One significant class of phytochemicals in berries is called anthocyanins. They are responsible for the blue, purple and red color in berries. They are strong antioxidants currently studied for their ability to prevent the decline of mental acuity. The majority of this work has been done with rats, but the potential to prevent and even reverse brain aging is very impressive. It holds the potential for designing diets and can significantly impact the quality of life into the senior years.

Berries contain a host of other phytochemicals. As with other fruits and vegetables, we know only a fraction of these powerful compounds and are only beginning to understand their potential for decreasing and delaying disease. Phytochemicals are being studied for their ability to protect against cancer, ease the impact of arthritis by acting as anti-inflammatories and fight dozens of other diseases and dysfunctions. They help lower the risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) by promoting stability of arterial plaque, improving flexibility of blood vessels and decreasing the tendency for blood clots to develop.

ORAC: Berries and other fruits and vegetables have an incredible number of components accounting for their health-promoting qualities, and their ability to act as antioxidants is just one of them. Berries have high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scores, indicating their strong antioxidant properties. It’s been well established eating more antioxidant-containing foods such as berries is an important part of a healthy diet.

Antioxidants protect the body from the damaging effects of free oxygen radicals. As we age, the cumulative effects of these free radicals makes it increasingly important to consume foods high in antioxidants to neutralize these free radicals.

Getting the News Out

A diet high in fruits and vegetables has long been associated with good health. This year the National Cancer Institute (NCI) issued the following dietary guidance endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration:

“Diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of some types of cancer and other chronic diseases.”

Dole Foods, a leader in nutrition marketing, was the first to use this powerful statement on the packaging and in the marketing of its fruit and vegetable products. Berries have a strong nutrient profile that can be promoted with the use of this statement and nutrient content claims show in the following chart.

Berries, they taste great and are great for you. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Fiber: Berries are an excellent source of fiber. The American diet generally fails to meet the recommended 14 g of fiber for each 1,000 calories. Our diets are so lacking in fiber that the Dietary Guidelines Committee focused on the need for increased fiber in its recently released report that will shape the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans due out in spring 2005.

Diets high in fiber may help alleviate and prevent a number of childhood digestive problems in children that could lead to serious complications or diseases later in life. Furthermore, epidemiological studies have reported people who eat higher amounts of fiber have lower risk of CVD and hypertension.

The role of fiber in decreasing the risk for cancer of the bowels still merits continued research, but there is certainly enough evidence that hedging one’s bet with a diet rich in fiber is a good idea. Just one cup of berries provides from 10 to 30 percent of daily fiber needs. More importantly, it provides this fiber in just two and a half to four percent of one day’s calories.

Vitamin C: All berries are a superb source of vitamin C. One serving (about eight medium strawberries) puts you over the top for daily vitamin C needs. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant correlated with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease as well as a reduced risk for developing CVD and angina.

Vitamin C is also important for building and maintaining healthy gums, strong connective tissue and a healthy immune system. It also helps the absorption of iron from plant foods. And it is one of the nutrients the Dietary Guidelines Committee found to be lacking in the American diet.

Popping a pill would not be nearly as effective as adding a cup of berries to one’s daily diet. Research shows the clear advantage food has over supplements in promoting health. Foods contain thousands of compounds that act both individually and together to help prevent disease. Even better, they often work synergistically: Together they are more effective than they would be individually. That doesn’t happen with supplements. More importantly a pill will never taste as wonderful as a handful of ripe blueberries.

Potassium: This is a mineral receiving much more respect these days. Studies showing people who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and moderately low in total fat, have much healthier blood pressure. The potassium content of this type of diet is thought to heavily influence its impact on blood pressure, an important factor in heart disease and stroke. While not a major source of potassium, berries contribute from four to eight percent of daily potassium needs in just one serving.

Folic Acid: Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood considered to be an independent marker for heart disease. Studies have shown the increased blood levels of homocysteine are associated with significant risk for CVD in both men and women. Folic acid helps reduces serum levels of homocysteine. Along with other nutrients and fiber support heart health, berries contribute two to 12 percent of daily folate needs.

5 A Day the Color Way

Health experts recommend five to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables for better health. Forty percent of Americans know they need to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, yet the average daily per capita consumption is just 3.6 servings.

Attention to the obesity epidemic and its frightening health implications, along with predictions this may be the first generation of children who will not outlive their parents, are fueling an increased desire for healthier diets and lifestyles. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-rich foods low in calories. Increasingly Americans recognize eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer high-calorie low-nutrient foods is the key to a diet promoting health and reducing risk of disease.

5 A Day the Color Way (www.shop5aday.com/acatalog/About_5_A_Day.html) is a consumer tested campaign widely used by fruit and vegetable producers and retailers to reach out to consumers and give them an easy tool to increase the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables they eat.

The Color Way logo and materials prompt consumers to eat at least one serving from each of the five color groups every day. It is a simple but powerful marketing message that really works at point-of-sales, on packaging or in promotions.


Editor's Note: To download the table on berries' nutrient compositions, please follow the "Download Now" link below.
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