Summer is here, and with it the most delicious of all fruit: fresh berries. Be they strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries, berries evolved to be literally irresistible in order to spread their seeds. Taste alone is reason to indulge, but with berries you get to have your cake and eat it too—berries are packed with nutrients, and few foods can compare to their benefits to human health.
One of the main reasons that berries are nutritive powerhouses is their intense color. Their pigments come from phytonutrients and flavonoids, which studies show have strong anti-inflammatory properties. These phytonutrients are protective against cardiovascular disease; breast, cervical, colon, and esophageal cancers; and type 2 diabetes. The many different phytonutrients in berries actually work together to provide their cardiovascular and other benefits. Taking antioxidant supplements cannot provide the same powerful mix and effects as consuming them in whole food form. In other words, focus on eating plenty of berries and you’ll maximize your health benefits and eating pleasure, while saving money on supplements.
All berries are also very low in calories and are sources of vitamin C, manganese, fiber, and vitamin K. Although all contain these four nutrients in good quantities, strawberries are especially rich in vitamin C, with 141% of the daily value in just one cup (about 8 large berries), as well as folate (vitamin B9). Blueberries are excellent sources of vitamin K, important for bones and blood. Raspberries and blackberries are particularly high in soluble and insoluble fiber.
Late spring and summer brings a huge harvest of strawberries, the most consumed berry in the United States. Modern farming methods have extended this season from April until late December, but the tastiest fruit still comes during the traditional harvest time. Strawberries grow close to the ground and can retain pesticides if grown conventionally (The FruitGuys only buy organic strawberries). Until 2010, methyl bromide was the main strawberry fumigant used before being banished as part of the U.S. agreement to the Montreal Protocol. It is still in limited use under “critical use exemptions” through 2014. Methyl Iodide, the proposed replacement, caused great concern as it has been linked to severe health concerns, including miscarriage and cancer. Fifty-four chemists and scientists, including five Nobel laureates, sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency requesting it not be approved for use. The EPA approved it. But in March 2012, the company that produces it announced it was pulling methyl iodide from the entire U.S. market. California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Strawberry Commission now have a working group to research fumigant alternatives. California produces 90 percent of U.S. strawberries and is a $2.1 billion industry.
Blueberry season can vary depending on the region where you live, but generally starts in May or June and runs through August. July is officially Blueberry Month, when most crops are at their peak. Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are the second most-consumed berries in the U.S. with a crop worth $641 million in 2010, according to the Agricultural Marketing Research Center of Iowa State University. Blueberries are perennial flowering plants native to the U.S. Bees are crucial to the crop. Each flower must be pollinated to produce a berry. Top producing states include Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Washingon, and also New Jersey, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and California.
Raspberries (Rubus idaeus) are a mid-summer crop, from July until early fall, but modern growing techniques, storage and distribution advances now allow them to be found in many markets almost year-round (though the best flavor is still during summer harvest). An individual raspberry is made up of about a hundred drupelets (like a micro stone fruit, each with its own tiny seed inside) and has a hollow core when pulled off. They grow on tall “brambles” or thorny bushes. Blackberries belong to the same Rosaceae family as raspberries and are also a mid-summer fruit. Blackberries tend to hold less well than raspberries and blueberries in terms of transportation and storage and really taste best when picked and consumed right off the bush. Blackberry juice stains hands and clothes.
Not only do all berries taste best when eaten fresh, but studies have shown their nutritive value also begins to decrease significantly after only two days. So eat them as soon as possible after harvest. Frozen berries, on the other hand, keep their antioxidant and nutrient potency, making them a great option if they are out of season. Consider freezing part of a bumper crop if you pick your own. Conventional berries are often grown using lots of pesticides and fumigants, so buy organic when possible.
In my family, berries rarely last beyond the unpacking stage. If you can manage to hold on to them a bit longer, there are many great ways to use them. Pies and jam taste great, but you do lose some antioxidant content. Keeping berries raw but fresh or frozen is the best nutritional bet. Try some of these ideas, if you haven’t already:
- Top a bowl of berries with chopped walnuts for extra antioxidants, and a spoonful of whipped cream for sweetness
- Go French and serve fresh berries with a cheese platter
- Add strawberry slices to a bowl of whole grain cereal
- Sprinkle raspberries on a spinach salad, or try blueberries with blue cheese as a salad topping
- Stir fresh berries into Greek yogurt
- Blend frozen berries with bananas and low-fat milk to make a smoothie
- Add dried berries to warm oatmeal, or sprinkle fresh ones on top
However you eat them, enjoy this summer’s bounty as often as you can. Studies show benefits increase when you eat berries three or more times per week. Both your body and your taste buds will thank you!