Why Wild Blueberries Pack a Powerful, Healthy Punch

The blueberries you usually find in the supermarket aren’t always packed with as many nutrients as wild varieties.

July 14, 2009

Hunting for wild blueberries is worth the extra effort.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It’s hard to hate a blueberry. The small, sweet gem of a fruit is sweet and delicious, and particularly good for heart and brain function. But even among blueberries, there are standouts. Emerging research, including a new, small study presented at a recent Dieticians of Canada conference, suggests certain types of blueberries could help prevent diabetes and arthritis.

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THE DETAILS: Men enrolled in a Canadian study drank a cup of wild blueberry juice every day for three weeks. After that, they were given a placebo for another three weeks. Researchers checked fasting blood levels before and after each treatment. They found that the juice from wild blueberries helped improve inflammation and insulin sensitivity, two factors that, when abnormal, can contribute to arthritis and diabetes. Which is why Marva Sweeney-Nixon, PhD, associate professor of biology at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada and one of the study researchers, suggests people eat half a cup of fresh or frozen wild blueberries a day. Her previous research found that feeding wild blueberries to rodents with high blood pressure helped lower their BP. More research needs to be done in this department to see if it pans out for humans, too.

WHAT IT MEANS: Fruits and vegetables can do wonders for our health, and they don't come with a two-page list of side effects. Wild blueberries are especially packed with nutrients, and although this particular study focused on men, others have found health benefits for women, too. “Many fruits benefit the heart and blood pressure, or diabetes. However, not many as a single component have been tested in this same way, so blueberries are unique in this regard,” Sweeney-Nixon says. “A good message is that diet can have a tremendous impact on health.”

Here’s what you need to know about blueberries to help maximize your health boost:

• Pick the right type. This time of year, you’re cheating yourself of great flavor and healthy nutrients if you come home from the supermarket or farm stand without some blueberries in your bag. But to get the best bang for your buck, grab the wilder variety whenever you can. The berries come in two broad types—ones grown out in fields or existing in the wild (lowbush variety), or those grown in greenhouses (highbush variety). “The latter are usually larger, available yearlong because they are from greenhouses, and don’t do as well in taste tests,” explains Sweeney-Nixon. “Wild are smaller, taste better, and have more antioxidants than domesticated. That’s why we use them [in studies],” explains Sweeney-Nixon. Because they are grown in the wild, they are exposed to more environmental challenges, so they produce more bioactive compounds that benefit people when they eat them. If wild blueberries aren’t in season or available at your store, consider looking for unprocessed wild blueberry juice at a health-food store. You can often find wild blueberries in your store’s freezer section, too. Both frozen and juice versions of the wild berry provide health benefits.

• Go organic. A study looking at blueberries grown in New Jersey found that those grown organically were sweeter, and contained up to 50 percent more antioxidants, than berries from farms treated with chemicals. Buying organic also reduces the amount of dangerous chemicals that find their way into our soil and drinking water supply.

• Skip the cream. A study published in February in the journal Free Radical Biology & Medicine found that eating blueberries with milk impairs the fruit’s antioxidant power. Enjoy the fruit with a cup of water instead, if you’re thirsty. Or just quench your thirst with extra blueberries.

• Grow your own. Not every type of blueberry bush can universally thrive in every part of the country. A good place to start looking for a type that works with your climate is a local native plant nursery. Check out a helpful Organic Gardening article, which provides a simple rundown discussing everything from how to build blueberry-loving soil to keeping birds from making your prized berries their dinner.

Tags: farming