Researchers recently demonstrated the remarkable brain-protecting benefits offered by blueberries and strawberries, showing they help clear accumulated toxins from the brain. They were also shown to offer important protection against radiation damage. These results add to the growing body of data demonstrating that favorite berries from our backyards, and around the world, deliver powerful health benefits. That’s because they contain high levels of phytonutrients beyond the traditional vitamins and minerals found in many whole foods.
Phytonutrients are produced by plants for protective purposes, such as warding off fungal and bacterial infections and guarding against other types of harm. Fortunately for us, these unique compounds translate into countless health benefits – many now just being discovered.
Phytonutrients often act as powerful antioxidants. The free-radical scavenging abilities of certain berries are shown to effectively fight the oxidative damage that contributes to chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Berries can also offer potent anti-inflammatory benefits, immune support and much more. Different phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, give berries and other plants their vibrant colors — hence the saying, “Add more color to your diet.”
More Variety, More Color
A wide variety of berries are currently available in the US. Common ones include blackberry, red raspberry, black raspberry, cranberry, blueberry, and strawberry. Less common varieties are becoming more popular as well: boysenberries, Marionberries, pomegranate and black currant are just a few — particularly pomegranate because of its powerful antioxidant, anticancer and cardioprotective benefits. Goji, mangosteen, acai, maqui and sea buckthorn are also gaining recognition for their powerful benefits, and are now more commonly found in health-food stores either in dried, frozen or powdered form.
The Amazing Maqui Berry
Maqui berry is native to the Patagonia region and has been used by the Mapuche people for a variety of ailments including sore throat, digestive disorders, ulcers, hemorrhoids, fever, tumors and other ailments. According to tradition, Mapuche warriors drank a fermented beverage made from the maqui berry several times per day. Their extraordinary stamina and strength is attributed to the consumption of this drink. Maqui berry is shown to contain the highest antioxidant value of any known berry, measured by something called an ORAC rating.
Let’s take a moment to look at the ORAC scale, which was developed by nutrition researchers at Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. ORAC refers to “Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.” This test is designed to measure a food’s antioxidant ability, and gauges the food’s ability to neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage.
It’s recommended that adults consume foods that provide an ORAC reading of about 3,000 per day. The average diet gives us about 1200.
Recently, however, there has been controversy about the use of this scale, since there are many mechanisms involved in the effects plant compounds can have on our physiology, and the specific ORAC value is only one way to assess these benefits.
Nevertheless, ORAC still provides some insight into a food’s ability to offer protective antioxidant benefits.
The Power of Flavonoids
Another measurement for assessing the value of various plants is flavonoid content. Flavonoids are a large group of plant compounds, with close to 4,000 different flavonoids identified thus far.
Anthocyanins, mentioned above, are a type of flavonoid produced by the plant for protection. What do they do for us? They protect tissues from inflammation and oxidative damage, and help prevent heart disease, cancer and other inflammatory diseases. Remember, oxidative damage is caused by unstable molecules called free radicals, which are missing an electron and grab one from a nearby molecule. This triggers a chain of reactions, causing damage to cell membranes and even to DNA, thus contributing to accelerated aging and chronic disease.
Anthocyanins prevent oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and strengthen blood vessel walls, protecting against cardiovascular disease and stroke. Pomegranate juice and maqui juice contain high levels, with blueberry juice not far behind. A word of caution though, fruit juice is high in sugars and tends to spike blood sugar, so it’s much better to eat the whole fruit, or add a powdered extract to a smoothie.
As scientists continue to explore the numerous mechanisms of action and health benefits offered by berries, these remarkable super-foods may top the list as some the most health supporting, disease-fighting foods on the planet.