Berries On Their Way to Becoming Top Healthful Ingredient

Berries have bounced their way into cereals, energy bars and beverages. Check out how far they've come when it comes to being a favorite healthful ingredient.

By David Feder, R.D., Editor

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In a study of wild blueberries published last spring in the Journal of Food Science, the berries' phenolic compounds demonstrated activity at all stages of cancer.

The first baker to put blueberries into muffins had a very good idea. And all the new cereals with freeze-dried strawberries and raspberries? Also a very good idea. Of course, granola and meal bars wouldn't be the same without dried fruit, especially cranberries. But strawberry or blueberry popcorn?

In fact, berry-flavored popcorn, a novelty popcorn item in blueberry and strawberry recently introduced by Proud Poppin Parents, Owensboro, Ky., may be the most unique application of berries in a product in a long time. But berries are finding their way into more and more health-oriented foods. And that's a good thing.

"Berries are an excellent source of vitamin C and fiber and a wonderful option for reaching the 5 cups of fruits and vegetables most moderately active adults and teens should aim for every day," says Christine E. Filardo, M.S., R.D., director of public relations for the Produce for Better Health Foundation (www.5aday.com), Wilmington, Del. According to the foundation, Americans need to more than double the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat to meet the healthy eating recommendations in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Small Fruit, Big Benefits

Berries are rich sources of folate, an important B vitamin that protects against birth defects. Strawberries are especially good sources of folate, now known to protect against heart disease by lowering homocysteine levels in the blood. One study reported that taking 800 mcg of folic acid for three years slowed cognitive decline and preserved memory in seniors.

The berries-health connection is well established by now. The hundreds of phytochemical compounds found throughout the berry spectrum have generated thousands of studies attesting to significant benefits in helping to prevent diseases such as cancer and heart disease, as well as diseases and degeneration of the eyes and nervous system. That would be enough to entice anyone with an interest in wellness. And continued research is upping the already attractive berry ante significantly.

"The Strawberry Commission (www.calstrawberry.com) is currently funding a major multiyear nutrition research program, involving a number of researchers across the country," says Mary De Groat, director of public relations for the Watsonville, Calif., group. "We currently have an animal study being conducted at Tufts University on strawberries and memory. We're learning that the anti-inflammatory effects of strawberries which help protect the heart may also aid memory function." Strawberries and other berries can also help prevent cataracts and may help protect the brain against developing Alzheimer's disease.

More Than Meets the Rabbit Eye

Prevention of disease is good. Reversing the effects of disease, especially cancer, is better. Blueberries are just one of the berries showing that potential. In a study of wild blueberries published last spring in the Journal of Food Science, wild blueberry phenolic compounds demonstrated activity at all stages of cancer — initiation, promotion and proliferation. According to the study, different types of the compounds were active during different stages of cancer, resulting in a broad spectrum of potential cancer-fighting benefits.

Folsom, Calif.-based U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberry.org) provides a wealth of research on blueberries and health, including studies on the specific phytochemical components of berries. Anthocyanins, for example, are identified as one of the most important of these disease-fighting berry compounds. Anthocyanins are responsible for the red, blue and purple coloring in berries and other fruits.

According to the Council, anthocyanins are thought to be responsible for the major health benefits of berries. But with a dozen or so different phytochemicals in each berry type — phenolics, stilbenes, tocopherol, carotenes — the fact is berries of all sorts give some of the most concentrated nutritional bang for the buck.

Beverages such as True Blue are riding a wave of demand for blueberry products and their associated health benefits.

The council has noted that the blueberry-health connection "has resulted in escalating sales of blueberry-containing products." Also, blueberry industry research has shown that "consumers want real blueberries in blueberry identified products."

Another natural substance found in blueberries and similar to anthocyanins are anthocyanosides. These are bacteria-killing compounds believed to be lethal to E. coli, that infamous bacteria linked to numerous outbreaks of infection.

Sing the Blues

Beverages are where berry usage seems to be experiencing the biggest growth. Orange juice producers saw the value-added attraction in blends such as strawberry-o.j. Since then, berry blends have been bigger than ever.

Blueberries may be the biggest berry beverage breakthrough yet. In Asia and Europe, blueberries are one of the most popular flavors for fruit beverages and juices. Coca Cola Co. had a successful Asian test marketing of its "Blueberry Splash." According to AC Nielsen, the product was tried by 10 million consumers.

In North America, blueberries in beverages are suddenly such a popular notion that a number of new products boast the little blue wonders. For example, Izze Beverage Co. (www.izze.com), Boulder, Colo., extended its product line of pure fruit juice sodas with blueberry last year. At the same time, Leading Brands (www.lbix.com), Vancouver, B.C., released TrueBlue blueberry juice cocktail.

TrueBlue was such a success the company followed immediately with combinations such as blueberry-cranberry, blueberry-green tea and blueberry-pomegranate. Other juice companies, large and small, are going for the berry blends, too.

Island Juice Company (www.islandjuice.com), Medford, Ore., produces a line of berry blend juice beverages and berry juice behemoth Ocean Spray recently introduced its newest juice cocktail, Organic Cranberry-Blueberry, for a double-shot of health. Cranberries, associated with decreased incidence, duration and severity of urinary tract infections, are also among berries with high concentrations of antioxidants and other phytochemicals.

Even hot beverages are taking the blueberry option. Inko's Blueberry White Tea, by Inko's LLC, Englewood, N.J., and Cincinnati-based Arizona Beverage Co.'s Blueberry Green Tea are two examples.

Making Berries Work

Although the beneficial effects of berries can be impacted by some processing techniques — for example, heat — frozen and fresh berries are fairly equal in nutritive value. Some processing methods, however, can preserve and even concentrate nutritional compounds.

"Freeze-dried strawberries —used in the popular recent berry cereals such as Kellogg Co. Special K Red Berries cereal — preserves many more of the phytochemicals," notes Chris Christian, director of nutrition and category development for the Strawberry Commission. "Berries add a lot of color and a nice nutritional punch. Also, berries are complementary allowing you to blend them and come up with good strong flavor combinations."

Also, a number of ingredient companies seeking nonsynthetic options for colors and flavors are turning to berry concentrates and extracts. The health benefit is a welcome value-added aspect to using natural berry components in formulations.

Funky popcorn aside, we can expect to have an ever-broadening number of options for versatile, naturally low-sugar berry as more and more food manufacturers take advantage of these colorful little nuggets of nutrition.

Keeping Currant with Berries

A new berry in the U.S. market could bring a boost to our berry-healthy diets. The black currant (at right), illegal to grow here until only recently, is a virtually unknown fruit in America (although extremely popular in Europe). Greg Quinn, president of the Currant Co. (www.currantc.com), Staatsburg, N.Y., overturned the century-old ban on the commercial cultivation of currants in 2003 after disproving the 1911 science claiming that a microbe natural to currants would decimate white pine trees. According to Quinn, the tiny, dark-purple berry is loaded with healthful antioxidants — more concentrated than the blueberry — and has three times the vitamin C found in oranges.

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