Of all the so-called superfoods — the nutrient-rich foods high in antioxidants that are thought to fight the ills of aging — few receive more accolades than the berry family. From humble blueberries to their exotic cousins from distant climes, berries have muscled out other super fruits to take a firm stand front and center. Sure, orange fruits and dark leafy greens get their fair shake, but the berries seem to steal the show.
And the attention bestowed on berries is not unfounded. In study after study, the benefits of berries are lauded. Most recently, researchers revealed that women who ate more than three servings of blueberries or strawberries a week had a 34 percent lower heart attack risk than those who ate less. Researchers say the reason is that the berries, like other red and blue fruits and vegetables, have high concentrations of anthocyanin, an antioxidant that may help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel function. Another study found that women who eat plenty of blueberries and strawberries experience slower mental decline with age than women who consume fewer of the fruits.
And what about all the other berries that are regularly slapped with the “miracle” label by food marketers and importers? Although many of the exuberant health claims have yet to be confirmed, the bulk of berries are loaded with important nutrients that can go far in combatting common deficiencies that may be making you feel less than peppy. With that in mind, here’s the who’s who of the super berry world.
1. Açai berry
One of the earliest contenders in the miracle-food market, açai berries are harvested from açai palm trees native to the rain forests of South America. In the Amazon the berries are beaten into a pulp, diluted in water and eaten with manioc, meat, fish or dried shrimp. Proponents purport that this little berry can tame arthritis and cancer, help with weight loss and high cholesterol, give a boost to erectile dysfunction, aid detoxification and provide overall health exuberance. Açai berries have proven to be a good source of antioxidants, fiber and heart-healthy fats, but research has yet to prove much else. Açai can be eaten raw, in capsules, in beverages such as juice, smoothies or energy drinks, and other food products. It is often sold as a frozen pulp. Its popularity in North America has had an unintended consequence: there is less of this healthy staple for native and often poor populations who have relied on it for generations, according to Bloomberg. [Related: Is the 'miracle berry' a gimmick or a nutritional powerhouse?]
2. Acerola cherry
Known scientifically as Malpighia emarginata, and commonly as acerola, Barbados cherry, West Indian cherry and wild crepemyrtle, this shrub is native to South America, southern Mexico and Central America, but is now also being grown as far north as Texas and in subtropical areas of Asia. The fruit is bursting with vitamin C — about nine times the vitamin C found in a typical orange. It is most commonly available in juice, powder or supplement form.
Also known as black chokeberry, aronia is native to the eastern U.S. and has a long history in Eastern Europe. The aronia fruit is about the size of a large blueberry and is commonly found in wet woods and swamps. Aronia shrubs are cultivated as ornamental plants; however, there is interest in the health benefits of the fruit because of its high levels of anthocyanins and flavonoids — five to 10 times higher than cranberry juice — with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins. The fruit is inedible raw because of its astringent nature (hence the common name, chokeberry), but the berries are used to make juice as well as wine, jam, syrup, juice, spreads, tea and tinctures.
Blackberries are special, beyond their basic berry goodness. Notable for their high levels of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid and manganese, they also rank well for antioxidant strength, with notable levels of polyphenolic compounds, such as ellagic acid, tannins, ellagitannins, quercetin, gallic acid, anthocyanins and cyanidins. By many accounts, blackberries are considered one of the strongest antioxidant foods consumed in the U.S. [Related: 5 recipes for blackberries]
Second only to strawberries in terms of U.S. berry consumption, blueberries are not only popular, but constantly rank near the top in terms of their antioxidant capacities among all fruits, vegetables, spices and seasonings. Studies suggest that blueberries may reduce memory decline, may reduce heart attack risk, and may provide other anti-aging benefits. They are also an excellent source of vitamins C and K, manganese and a good source of dietary fiber. One of the real beauties of blueberries is that they are native to North America and are grown commercially in 38 states, meaning fewer food miles and habitat destruction than some of their superfood sisters. Unfortunately, domestic blueberries test positive for 42 different pesticide residues in EWG’s examination of pesticide loads – so purchase organic ones when you can. [Related: Recipes to enjoy blueberries at every meal]
Another fruit native to North America, cranberries have a long history of use for medicinal purposes, including treatments for wounds, urinary disorders, diarrhea, diabetes, stomach ailments and liver issues. There is some evidence that cranberry can hel prevent urinary tract infections; however, the evidence is not definitive, and more research is needed. To that end, the National Institutes of Health is funding research on the cranberry’s effects on heart disease, yeast infections and other conditions, and other researchers are investigating its potential against cancer, stroke and viral infections. But be warned, if you plan to consume cranberries in juice form, check the nutrition panel. Many cranberry juices are juice blends; one popular brand is only 27 percent juice and one serving comes with the whopping equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar.
7. Goji berry
Also known as lycium or Chinese wolfberries, these go-to berries for the superfood set are native to the Himalayan region of China and Tibet. The small, red berries have been used by Chinese herbalists for millennia to help eyesight, boost immune function and promote longevity. Although there are few published clinical trials, many of goji berries’ reported health benefits are related to their high antioxidant concentration. They have remarkable levels of vitamin C, beta carotene, amino acids, iron and B vitamins. Available dried, they taste kind of like a dried cherry with a slight metallic and salty tinge; they are also available is powder, juice or supplement form. They travel a long way to get to North America, though, so love them sparingly. [Related: Goji berries: Health benefits, tips and recipes]
8. Maqui berry
Maqui berry is a deep purple berry that grows wild throughout parts of southern Chile. The tart and flavorful fruit contains an abundance of vitamin C, calcium, iron and potassium, anthocyanins and polyphenols, and anti-inflammatory compounds. Long consumed in whole and juice form, maqui is now found in a number of dietary supplements (including powders, capsules and juice blends).
9. Noni berry
The noni berry is the fruit of the evergreen shrub known as canary wood, which is native to tropical areas of the South Pacific. The green fruit, leaves and rhizomes were long used used in Polynesian cultures to treat menstrual cramps, bowel irregularities, diabetes, liver diseases and urinary tract infections. Noni is available in powdered pulp or juice form, but many of the nutrients are lost when the fruit is juiced. The main micronutrients of noni pulp powder include vitamin C, niacin (vitamin B3), iron and potassium, with lesser amounts of vitamin A and calcium. However, the juice only retains the vitamin C, and at levels about half as much as orange juice.
The U.S. is the third-largest raspberry producer in the world, which is a good thing given our fondness for them and the health benefits they deliver. Because of their aggregate fruit structure, raspberries are among the highest fiber-containing foods, with up to 20 percent fiber per total weight. They are also a great source of vitamin C, manganese, B vitamins 1–3, folic acid, magnesium, copper and iron. As for the antioxidants, raspberries contain the all-important anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin, gallic acid, cyanidins, pelargonidins, catechins, kaempferol and salicylic acid. Yellow raspberries are also grown, but they have fewer antioxidants. A compound found in raspberries, raspberry ketone, is routinely touted as a weight loss supplement, though more research is needed to determine the veracity of the claims.
Although strawberries are grown in every state in the U.S., California manages to grow 75 percent of the nation’s crops – in fact, the Golden State produces more than 1 billion pounds of strawberries a year, which is surely appreciated by the 94 percent of U.S. households that consume the sweet red berries. Although strawberries aren’t exotic and don’t require long traveling distances and dwindling rain forests to thrive, they are one of the stellar powerhouses of the berry group. One serving of strawberries offers 85 milligrams of vitamin C, or 150 percent of the Daily Value. They provide fiber, manganese, folate, potassium, and like the rest of the berry family, antioxidants. Strawberries land in second place for pesticide load on EWG’s 2013 Dirty Dozen list, so purchase organic ones if you can.
Photo credits: Acai: gurucrusher/flickr; Acerola: jillmotts/flickr; Aronia: outdoorPDK/flickr; Blackberry: Pauline Mak/flickr; Cranberry: MGF/Lady Disdain/flickr; Goji: miheco/flickr; Maqui: Morrana/Wikimedia; Noni: Wilfredo Rodríguez/Wikimedia; Raspberry: green lover/flickr; Strawberry: sanchom/flickr