From pomegranate seeds to acai berries, plus their more well-known cousins like blueberries and raspberries, brightly colored berries have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately. Widely heralded as nature’s “super foods,” berries have been touted by almost every news outlet, and of course by Dr. Oz. But is all the hype just that, hype, or is their facts behind it all. Take a look at the following research tidbits, and decide for yourself.
Antioxidants: the Power in Super
Most of us have heard about antioxidants: they are the plant-based flavonoids that help fight free radicals. Although some free radicals are the byproducts of natural body function, many free radicals bombard the body from outside sources, such as cigarette smoke, chemicals, x-rays, and air pollution. Free radicals cause damage in the body that is called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a key factor in conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and aging.
Antioxidants combat free radicals by donating an electron to a free radical and neutralizing it, halting the oxidative damage. The body produces some antioxidants, but also gains many from diet. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain plant-based flavonoids that function as antioxidants. The vitamins A, C, and E, are common antioxidants, but richly colored berries also contain anthocyanins: the antioxidants making the news these days. It is thought that the antioxidants in berries are what give them their “super” powers.
Berries: Something Special?
Brightly colored berries do not have the corner on the market when it comes to antioxidant content. In fact, in a study conducted by the USDA, the antioxidant levels in a rather surprising food was actually considerably higher than berries. That food? Beans. That’s right, the small red bean topped the USDA list for antioxidant capacity. Of course, berries ranked close behind, but beans provide a surprising twist. Spinach, carrots, broccoli, and kale are also carriers of abundant antioxidants, although not quite at the level of berries. However, researchers are investigating whether the benefit comes strictly from the amount of antioxidant activity, or if the way particular foods interact in the body also have a role.
Berry Research: What Does it Say?
So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty details: what does the research really show? Surprisingly, this may be one fad that actually has a lot of merit.
- Cancer Prevention – numerous studies point to the effect of berries to inhibit tumor growth in various cancers, including breast, oral, prostate, and colon.
- Heart Health – again, numerous studies back up the value of berries on heart health. One in particular was conducted with 93,600 women. The results were significant. Even though the study group was relatively young, and therefore at low-risk for heart disease, those who ate berries on a regular basis were 34% less at risk for heart disease.
- Mental Health – berry consumption has been shown to delay the effects of aging on cognitive abilities. The more berries eaten on a regular basis, the more likely it is that your brain will stay sharp.
Eating Those Berries
Apparently, there is some merit to eating berries. Are they decidedly better for you than salmon, spinach, or carrots? The jury is still out on that one, but the studies certainly stack up in favor of including these powerful colorful fruits in your diet. As with anything, balance seems to be the key. A well-balanced diet including a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables can go a long way toward promoting good health. In the meantime, how many berries should you eat? Most studies show the most significant change in participants who consume the equivalent of ½ cup of berries three times a week.
Sources for this article include:
- Olsson M et al. Inhibition of cancer cell proliferation in vitro by fruit and berry extracts and correlations with antioxidant levels. J Agric Food Chem. 2004; 52: 7264-7