Berry fruits: A taste of summer by Glen Matten
Could any food be more synonymous with British summertime than strawberries? Tucking into them at the peak of the strawberry season is literally like tasting a mouthful of summer. So what more fitting time than now to take a moment to explore the health benefits of berries.
When it comes to their health giving properties, berries are actually quite misunderstood, no doubt driven by unhelpful soundbites about them being a ‘superfood’ (nothing more than a vacuous marketing slogan) or ‘rich in antioxidants’ (which as we will soon see, goes nowhere in explaining why they are so good for us). Instead, we’ll concentrate on the genuine scientific research into berries and their rich array of bioactive plant compounds and in particular a special type of flavonoid known as anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are the pigments responsible for the radiant purple-red hue of berry fruits (they’re also found in foods such as red cabbage, or the skin of red grapes and aubergine), and increasingly the focus of research interest into their health benefits. Weirdly, anthocyanins are very poorly absorbed (their bioavailability is thought to be about 0.1%) which means that whilst they are powerful antioxidants, we can’t absorb anywhere near enough of them to justify the antioxidant health claims.
This begs the question as to how they exert such favourable health effects. In fact, berries are now the subject of great interest for their “beyond antioxidant” benefits. What’s likely to be happening here is that anthocyanins are actually interacting with our gut bacteria, where they are being degraded and transformed into other bio-active substances which start influencing our health, say through anti-inflammatory effects, or benefits within the brain, or effects on our fat cells, or how the body handles glucose. In another twist, it looks probable that compounds in berry fruits such as anthocyanins actually improve the balance and health of the gut bacteria itself by encouraging more of the friendly types such as bifidobacteria.
As for the health benefits of berries and their bio-active components, there is growing evidence for a wide range of effects. In the current climate of sugar-phobia, there is increasing suspicion within some circles that even fructose-containing fruit is bad for health, like some marginally healthier version of a bag of Haribos. Berries disprove that overly-reductionist point of view. Despite themselves containing sugars they may just turn out to be one of the most potent anti-diabetic foods you could eat. Their bioactive compounds, notably the anthocyanins, actually have an inhibitory effect on how the body breaks down carbs and absorbs glucose, thereby helping to better regulate blood sugar levels. As a consequence, regular consumption of berries has been associated with a reduction in the risk of diabetes. Which when you think about it, is pretty impressive for a food that is sweet to the taste.
Indeed, berries and their bioactive compounds may also be influencing the health of the eyes, bolstering bone density, improving cardiovascular health, exerting anti-cancer effects, protecting against obesity, as well as enhancing brain health and diminishing the risk of cognitive decline. And whilst much of this research is still suggestive rather than rock solid fact, it does give a taste of the potential broad-ranging health benefits of regularly eating berries.
So I for one will be making the most of this summer’s crop in the knowledge that there are few foods that come close to the far reaching health benefits of berries.