Superfruits: Back to Basics

You do not have to travel to faraway places to get your antioxidants.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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“The cranberry’s complex mixtures of polyphenols, such as quercetin, and unique tannins suggest that it is capable of delivering a wide range of health benefits and a variety of different functional activities,” says Christina Khoo, research sciences manager at Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass. “Much of the research up until a few years ago focused on the cranberry’s role in preventing urinary tract infections, but emerging research suggests the fruit also has health potential throughout the body, including cardiovascular, cellular, oral and gastrointestinal health.

“These whole body benefits are made possible by the fruit’s complex make-up,” Khoo continues. “Unique A-linked compounds called proanthocyanidins prevent bacteria from adhering to cell walls and removing the potential to cause infection, while the high antioxidant content helps fight free-radicals that can damage cells throughout the body. Cranberries also have a rich combination of other nutrients, such as fiber and vitamin C, giving them these multidimensional health benefits.”

Blackberries always chic

Blackberries are a top fruit source of fiber, an excellent source of vitamin C and are jam-packed with antioxidant phytonutrients that help promote heart health. Harvard and University of North Carolina researchers found that for each 10g of fruit fiber eaten per day (blackberries provide 7g), you may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease death by 30 percent.

Prescribed to cure scurvy in the past, blackberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps protect against infections, cancers and aging. At 75 calories, one cup (144g) is an excellent source of vitamin E, which is beneficial for the heart and circulatory problems. A good source of potassium, manganese and folate, blackberries also contain the soluble fiber pectin, which helps to eliminate cholesterol and protects against environmental toxins.

The high tannin content and resultant antiseptic properties makes them good for tightening tissues as well as treating minor bleeding. They have been found to be beneficial for those suffering from diarrhea, intestinal inflammation and hemorrhoids. Blackberries have been used to treat mild infections, like sore throats and mouth irritations.

Seductive strawberries

Strawberries, the most popular berry fruit in the world, contain unique antioxidant phytonutrients that promote heart health. Anthocyanins, which give berries their red and blue hues, also act as potent antioxidants. Specific antioxidants present in strawberries include quercetin, kaempferol, chlorogenic acid, p-coumaric acid, ellagic acid and vitamin C.

Bioavailability has to do with absorption or metabolism in the gut. What’s absorbed will be impacted by the mechanical structure of different antioxidants in food -- if they’re tied up with fiber or if they have sugar molecules attached.

– Ronald Prior, USDA Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center

At a mere 50 calories, one serving of strawberries (about eight, or 1 cup) is an excellent source of vitamin C, more vitamin C than an orange. Strawberries also contain fiber (2.9g), potassium and folate.

Research suggests the high antioxidant activity of strawberries may help reduce levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and flavonoids may also provide cardio protection by inhibiting platelet aggregation and thromboxane synthesis, according to the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, Calif. In addition, anthocyanins in strawberries may help protect the neuronal cells from inflammation that is linked to declines in cognitive function.

In addition to traditional nutrients, strawberries are also rich in phenolic compounds such as flavonoids and elagic acid, which are the focus of intense study due to their antioxidant, anticancer and antimutagenic properties. They help control three of the risk factors associated with heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high homocysteine levels.

Cherry picking

More than nine out of 10 Americans want to know where their food comes from, nearly 80 percent say they’re purchasing locally produced products, and the majority is defining “local” as made in America. About 95 percent of cherries consumed in the U.S. are grown here, with most coming from Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania and New York, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute, Lansing, Mich. Coupled with potential health benefits, this homegrown advantage makes cherries an ideal ingredient for food product development in beverages, snacks, and cereals.

There are some 7,000 cherries on an average cherry tree, which results in more than 100 lbs. per tree per season, and it takes 8 lbs. of cherries to make 1 lb. of dried cherries. Cherries are available in dried, frozen and juice forms.

Cherries contain beta carotene (vitamin A), vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, iron, foliate, fiber and phytonutrients quercetin, kaempferol, chlorogenic acid, p-coumaric acid, gallic acid, perillyl alcohol, and D-glucaric acid. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that eating just 1 1/2 servings of tart cherries can significantly boost antioxidant activity in the body. In the study, healthy adults who ate a cup and a half of frozen cherries had increased levels of antioxidants, specifically five different anthocyanins - the natural antioxidants that give cherries their red color.

“This study documents for the first time that the antioxidants in tart cherries do make it into the human bloodstream and are coupled with increased antioxidant activity that could have a positive impact,” says Sara Warber, co-director of University of Michigan Integrative Medicine and principal investigator of the study. “And while more research is needed, what’s really great is that a reasonable amount of cherries could potentially deliver benefits, like reducing risk factors for heart disease and inflammation.”

Previous animal studies have linked cherries and cherry compounds to important benefits, including helping to lower risk factors for heart disease and impacting inflammation. Cherry-enriched diets can lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce triglycerides. Other benefits of cherries found in animal studies include a 14 percent lower body weight and less “belly fat,” the type linked with increased heart disease risk and type-2 diabetes.

Tart cherries are one of the few known food sources of melatonin, a potent antioxidant that helps regulate our circadian rhythms and natural sleep patterns, and who isn’t sleep-deprived these days?

Also notable, a study from the University of South Carolina and Clemson University supports findings that suggest foods containing quercetin, a natural anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory compound, may be a natural way to help boost the immune system and help fight off infection during flu season.

Amazin’ raisins and plums 

Raisin and Couscous salad
Raisin and Couscous salad

Raisins (dried grapes) rank high among antioxidant foods, as well, containing 3,037 ORAC units in 3.5 oz. (about 2/3 cup).

Research has shown that oxidized LDL cholesterol is more likely to be deposited on the artery wall. That buildup has the potential of causing a blockage. Therefore, protecting the LDL from oxidation is an important strategy for heart health – and antioxidant-packed raisins can help. In an 18-week University of California–Davis study, one serving a day of raisins actually helped lower LDL cholesterol and its oxidation in people with high LDL levels.

Raisins also contain catechins, a family of readily absorbed antioxidants which research shows may promote colon health. These helpful compounds are found in apples, grapes and raisins and beverages, such as chocolate, tea and red wine.

Formerly known as prunes, dried plums are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, according to the California Dried Plum Board, Sacramento, Calif. At only 100 calories, a single serving (four to five) has 3g of fiber, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, boron and antioxidant phenolics. In addition to helping maintain healthy blood sugar levels and healthy cholesterol, dried plums promote satiety and may help reduce skin wrinkles.

Perhaps more important, an animal study suggests eating dried plums slows the development of atherosclerosis, which leads to heart disease and stroke. And regarding the laxative effect, research suggests that generally healthy adults can eat 10 to 12 dried plums per day without significant changes in their bowel habits.

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