Tangy Blueberries Pack A Healthy Punch

Blueberries have never been on more of a roll. In fact, it might be smart to swap life's bowl of cherries for a bowl of blueberries.

These tasty little orbs, which long have been an occasional garnish for cornflakes and spots of color in muffins and pancakes, now are in the limelight for their nutritional benefits.

Have some berries. They're packed with more antioxidants than 40 other fresh fruits and vegetables, making them good weapons in the fight against cancer and other age-related diseases, according to researchers at Tufts University.

Ongoing research, also at Tufts, indicates blueberries might help restore short-term memory loss.

University of California scientists say blueberries may reduce the buildup of so-called "bad" cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and strokes, again thanks to their antioxidant content.

Blueberries, like their cranberry cousins, also are said to promote urinary tract health and reduce the risk of infections, according to scientists on the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, Israel, and at Rutgers University.

Researchers also are considering a connection between anthocyanin (the chemical that makes blueberries blue) and good vision.

Praise for these little phytochemical powerhouses is coming in from all over.

"If you add one food to your diet this year, make it blueberries. Calorie for calorie, blueberries recently have emerged as the single most ferocious food in the supermarket at halting the forces that age you," said Holly McCord, registered dietitian and Prevention magazine's nutrition writer.

And blueberries were named "Fruit of the Year" by Eating Well magazine in 1998.

Dr. Ronald Prior's study at the Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts University rated blueberries first in antioxidant activity when compared with 40 other commercially available fruits and vegetables he has studied.

They topped blackberries, strawberries, plums, oranges, bananas and apples. They even pack more of an antioxidant punch than kale or spinach.

Prior, who plunks frozen blueberries on his cereal every morning ("They defrost while I'm eating the cereal") and admits blueberry pie always has been his favorite dessert, cautioned consumers that blueberries still shouldn't be the only fruit in their bowls.

"We're talking balance. People should still be eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

"What I am saying is that there already is enough evidence to say consumers should eat blueberries when they have the chance."

He added that beyond measuring antioxidant levels, studies must still be conducted to determine their actual epidemiological effectiveness in disease prevention.

"People currently are eating two to three servings of fruits and vegetables and getting between 1,200 and 1,600 units of antioxidant capacity. Eating half a cup of blueberries provides 2,400 units, or double a person's normal intake."

Americans' blueberry consumption has been steady for the past five years. Forecasts for this year estimate that per capita consumption will be 11.6 ounces, or about 1.5 cups.

To get the biggest nutritional boost, consumers probably should stick to eating berries fresh out of hand or a few minutes after taking frozen berries from the freezer.

"We worked mostly with fresh berries, although we learned that steaming them for five minutes seemed to release more antioxidants. But with blueberry muffins, we saw a slight decrease. Except under the harshest of conditions, I believe there would be about a 10 or 15 percent decrease in the antioxidant properties from cooking," Prior said.