Putting nature’s ‘super foods’ to work

When you think of comfort foods, mashed potatoes, meatloaf and your grandmother’s fruit pies may come to mind. While all three may satisfy your nostalgic cravings, the pies don’t just taste good; many of them are really good for you, too! That’s because when they’re filled with berries — especially seasonal and locally grown varieties such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries — they’re loaded in healthy antioxidants that fight disease, reduce stress and help keep you well.

Berries and other fruit are nature’s “super foods.” Whether you enjoy eating wild or domestic berries, cook them, put them in pies, yogurt or fruit salads or eat them right off the plant or bush, you’re getting a boatload of healthy antioxidants, important disease-fighting compounds. Scientists believe they help prevent and repair the stress that comes from oxidation, a natural process that occurs during normal cell function. A small percentage of cells become damaged during oxidation and turn into free radicals, which can start a chain reaction to harming more cells and possibly unleashing disease. Unchecked free radical activity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

Cranberries, blueberries, and blackberries rank highest among the fruits researchers have studied. Apples run a close second, and dried fruits ranked highly, as well. Peaches, mangos, and melons, while scoring lower than berries, still contain plenty of antioxidants as well as other nutrients.

Variety is the key

Even though many fruits and some vegetables have high antioxidant content, the body does not absorb all of it. Bioavailability has to do with how our bodies absorb, or metabolize food, and how different foods interact in our bodies.

That’s why variety in our diet is important. By eating as many antioxidant-rich foods as possible, we’re likely to reap the most benefits. With berries at the top of the antioxidant food chain, the more berries the better our chances of improving our health.

More than 300 studies also cite plentiful antioxidants in red wine, grape juice, grape seed, and grape skin extracts. Red wine is loaded with flavonoids like anthocyanidins and catechins, which, according to studies, slows the process of clogging arteries and heart disease.

Many of the same flavonoids are found in black and green tea as well as dark chocolate, but the bulk of research has been on grape flavonoids. Researchers say that flavonoids may help promote heart health by preventing blood clots (which can trigger a heart attack or stroke), prevent cholesterol from damaging blood vessel walls, improve the health of arteries (making them expand and contract more easily), and stimulate the production of nitric oxide, which may prevent hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Counting on antioxidants

If you can find them, wild blueberries are the best, overall. Just one cup has 13,427 total antioxidants — vitamins A & C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) like querticin and anthocyanidin. That’s about 10 times the USDA’s daily recommendation, in just one cup. Cultivated blueberries have 9,019 per cup and are equally vitamin-rich.

Cranberries also are antioxidant powerhouses (8,983 antioxidants). Dried cranberries are great in cereal and salads, in pasta, and trail mixes. Blackberries (7,701), raspberries (6,058), strawberries (5,938), black plums (4,873), sweet cherries (4,873), and red grapes (2,016) are also brimming with vitamins A and C and flavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, quercetin, and anthocyanidin.

Apples are also vitamin- and antioxidant-rich. The classic Red Delicious (5,900), Granny Smith (5,381), Gala (3,903), and many other varieties are available nearly year-round. Applesauce, juice, and jellies are convenient apple sources, though prepared foods often have added sugar, which isn’t good for you.

Orange-colored fruits also are good sources of antioxidants. One naval orange has 2,540; the juice has about half that. Mangoes have 1,653. A peach has 1,826, tangerines, 1,361, and pineapple, 1,229.

Finally, dried versions of these fruits are smaller, but they still have plenty of antioxidants. For instance, here’s the antioxidant content in these dried fruits: Prunes (7,291), dates (3,467), figs (2,537), and raisins (2,490). Some people prefer the taste or texture of certain dried fruits over fresh ones. Dried cranberries are a prime example — they tend to be much less tart than the fresh variety.

So however you eat or drink them, seek out and enjoy berries year round, but especially now, when they’re easy to find, reasonably priced, and locally grown.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!