?most of us remember the old adage about an apple-a-day keeping the doctor away.
However, with the latest food nutrition research, the rhyme might need to be turned into an A-B-C: A for Apple, B for Blueberry, and C for Cranberry. In fact, these delicious little berries are poised to knock their fellow fruit out of the medicine chest.
Cranberries and blueberries — two native Massachusetts plant species — are cousins. Both are part of the heath family of plants which also includes azaleas, rhododendrons, and bilberries.
Most people have a favorite isolated spot in town where they might know of a few blueberry bushes but, according to Grey Lee, executive director of Land’s Sake Farm in Weston, cranberries also grow wild. He knows of a few places in Weston, and believes that there are still many places where wild cranberries are found in nearby towns, especially along the Concord River.
According to dietician Ashley Bade, R.D., L.D.N., at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, cranberries and blueberries are rich in cytonutrients and antioxidants. “I’m always in favor of people adding fruits to their diets,” she says.
Although multivitamins and even cranberry pills claim to offer antioxidants, Bade believes that fruits are always the best way to reap the many health benefits. “The bioavailability is always better from food,” she explains.
For years people have heard about drinking cranberry juice to prevent urinary tract infections, but the advice was often dismissed as an old wives tale. No longer! “Cranberries have been shown to prevent the adhesion of bacteria (especially E-coli) from building up on the urinary tract wall,” Bade says.
The cranberry’s effect on health may seem like a recent discovery, but Native Americans were known to use cranberries to treat illnesses.
Today, cranberries are not only used to help prevent urinary tract infections, but they also promote a healthy heart and healthy gums and teeth. Research even shows cranberry’s cholesterol-reducing properties, and some scientists have claimed that cranberries may even help prevent stomach ulcers.
Results of research studies performed at UMass Dartmouth, Cornell, UCLA, the American Institute of Cancer Research, and the London Health Sciences Center in Ontario, have all been recently published and state that cranberries may be beneficial in preventing the beginning stages of cancer and in slowing tumor development.
The person probably most responsible for modern cranberry farming was Henry Hall, who lived on the Cape in Dennis in the 19th century. He took note of the large red berries that grew in his sandy bog and became the first known cranberry farmer. Today Massachusetts grows half the country’s crop of cranberries, with most harvested between Labor Day and Halloween.
Native Americans in New England were the first to use another native plant for health purposes. The tiny blueberry, found in the area’s woodlands, was prized, both fresh and dried, for its flavor and its nutritional and healing qualities. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the first cultivated blueberry plants were developed. In 1916 Elizabeth White and her family began the first commercial production of blueberries.
Both wild and cultivated blueberries are high in anthocyanins, the same antioxidants found in red wine, which many studies have shown may help to reduce the risk of heart disease. In fact, scientists studying blueberries believe they deliver 38 percent higher amounts of anthocyanins than in wine. It should be noted, however, that processing and possibly even cooking blueberries may destroy the anthocyanins.
Most of the fat, sweet blueberries found in supermarkets differ from the tiny tart berries found in the wild, but Grey Lee at Land’s Sake says even farmed berries offer up some surprises. “Interestingly enough, most cultivated berries have been grafted onto root stock that is wild and hardier,” he explains. “Some of the older bushes are producing fruit closer to wild berries, but even with the cultivars, you might still get berries that are closer to wild.”
Other health benefits from eating blueberries include improvement in eye vision and help in preventing macular degeneration, probably because of the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E found in blueberries, as well as carotenoids.
Both the cranberry and the blueberry are good sources of ellagic acid, soluble and insoluble fiber, and tannins, all of which aid digestion. In addition, some scientists claim that cranberries act as a natural probiotic, meaning they support the useful and good bacteria that grow in the human gastro-intestinal tract while killing the bacteria that causes infection and food poisoning.
As healthy as blueberries and cranberries are, they have both become associated with harvest time comfort food. The wild blueberries are wonderful and delicious eaten right off the bush, but when they are traditionally at their best in late summer, they find their way into pies, pancakes and muffins.
The height of the local season for blueberries is typically from mid-July to mid-August, according to Lee. Different varieties of plants bear fruits through the beginning of September, but he laughs when he warns: “There’s a lot of weather, and a lot of birds that have to be considered.”
The cranberry is so tart that it’s not really eaten as a snack unless it’s dried and, in the process, sweetened. While it has traditionally been regarded as part of the Thanksgiving or holiday menu, probably because it’s been associated with a later fall harvest, the awareness of its overwhelming health benefits is helping to extend the season. Add to that the popularity and aggressive marketing of dried cranberries, and the ease of freezing fresh berries, and it’s a fruit that’s beginning to be recognized as a fruit for all seasons.
According to Bade, the hierarchy for choosing foods for health would be to avoid as much processing as possible. She would suggest first to choose fresh, then frozen or dried. “And try to find dried without a lot of sugar used in the process.”
Bade realizes that many people choose blueberry and cranberry recipes for flavor rather than for their health benefits. “In baked goods, try to include fiber," she advises. But, she admits, "Eating [healthy food] around the holidays is always difficult.”