What Exactly Are Berries?
The true definition of a berry, in the botanical sense, is a simple fruit that has a thin skin, fleshy interior with one or multiple seeds inside. A good example of this is a blueberry or currant. Then there’s berries we know as ‘culinary berries’, which is actually a misnomer and not technically berries at all. These include strawberries, blackberries and raspberries. These fruits are known as drupelets, which are aggregate berries containing multiple fruits joined together. And just for fun, did you know that bananas, watermelon and even pumpkins fall under the berry category?
Berries are typically a small, fleshy fruit, found in shrubs or on small trees in vibrant purple and red colours. They are often sweet, sometimes tart and highly pigmented due to their rich polyphenol content. While there may be conjecture on what constitutes a berry, the commonly accepted definition usually includes the word ‘berry’ in the name. Berries can be eaten raw, enjoyed stewed or made into jams. Some berries do very well as dried fruit.
Actually, All Berries Are Healthy
Attempting to categorise different berries based on their health potential and nutrient content could be defined as hair-splitting. Most berries are very high in vitamin C, dietary fibre and plant polyphenols. Flavonols, tannins and anthocyanins are among some of the most abundant polyphenols in berries. All berries possess anti-inflammatory qualities. Many berries have been strongly linked to reducing the risk of cancer, helping metabolic conditions and protecting against chronic diseases.
Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, mulberries, boysenberries, even bramble berries. They all should be on regular rotation in your diet, whether it's fresh or dried. What’s worth remembering is that plenty of fruits you wouldn’t normally consider a berry, are in fact berries. These fruits are equally valuable in conferring health benefits. For example, a tomato is technically a berry, and there’s robust evidence for tomatoes in protecting against heart disease.
If you’re after further inspiration for botanical berries that are just as delicious and healthy as the next, here’s a list of honourable mentions. Bet you forgot about coffee, didn’t you?
- Black Sapote
- Purple Guava
Here’s 5 of the healthiest berries that deserve a moment in the hot seat for their wonderful benefits.
Blueberries are one of the richest sources of plant anthocyanins and flavonols. They’re delicious with a lovely fragrance unrivalled by other berries. They’re ludicrously purple and sweet on the inside. Arguably, they’re the most popular berry commercially available. Blueberries are part of the vaccinium flowering plant family and are related to cranberries.
Broadly, moderate intake of blueberries helps with weight maintenance and reduces diabetes symptoms. Blueberries have also demonstrated cardioprotective and gastroprotective properties in human trials. They’re wonderfully high in vitamin C, manganese and are low G.I. They are also useful in slowing the ageing process and reducing negative impacts of degenerative diseases. While these facts are compelling on their own, there’s another reason why blueberries fit the brief as one of the healthiest berries. The main reason why blueberries feature in the top 5 healthiest berries, is due to their unique and potent neuroprotective effects on the brain and nervous system.
Check out my love letter to blueberries here. If you love fresh blueberries, you’re bound to love dried. Get all the same nutritional benefits as fresh blueberries with dried blueberries, anytime you want them.
High in vitamin C, cardioprotective and a huge source of antioxidants. Cranberries may not be as popular in Australia as they are in other countries, however they are worthwhile and healthy little berries. The cinnamic acid and flavonoids are among some of the health-giving compounds found in cranberries. Quercetin, kaempferol and phenolic acid are also found in cranberries. Ellagic acid, which helps reduce chronic diseases, is uniquely found in cranberries and represents more than half their total polyphenolic compounds.
These compounds are what makes cranberries so powerful in fighting against chronic diseases. Each polyphenol works to protect against cholesterol oxidation and promote good cardiovascular health as a result. Cranberry juice is just as healthy as fresh or dried cranberries. Around 500ml of cranberry juice boosts antioxidant levels in the blood significantly. Other incredible benefits of cranberries are that they protect against stomach ulcers and cancer development.
Goji berries are a relative newcomer on the health food scene. They have been condemned by various sectors of health and wellness experts. Yet after combing through the research, I think they are one pretty red berry worth a second look. It turns out, goji berries are somewhat worth the hype they received when they first appeared centre-stage in the world of healthfoods. They can help to support weight loss, promote eye health and protect against premature ageing. An important note on goji berries - they may not be for everyone. Some people who have nightshade sensitivities may want to proceed cautiously with goji, as they’re part of the same family.
Overwhelmingly, there’s a good body of research out there in support of goji berries. Among some of goji berry’s most widely touted health benefits are their cancer-fighting properties. This is largely due to the high antioxidant profile of goji berries and has been illuminated in many scientific studies.
Açai berries are another potentially obscure, yet very nutritious berry. These berries are very high in antioxidant compounds and boast a very high protein and fat content. This combination of macronutrients is quite unusual for most fruits, let alone a berry to possess. Açai berries make a wonderful high-protein addition to your diet which will have a range of health benefits. These include supporting hormone function, brain health and immune health. Consuming foods higher in fat and protein and lower in carbohydrates is a natural way to maintain a healthy weight as well.
Açai berries are anti-inflammatory and can support detoxification in the body. They are also very valuable in protecting against cell damage in the brain and tissues. Açai berries have been shown to lower blood pressure in a recent scientific study. An intriguing quality that açai berries hold is they provide a natural source of pain relief. Research shows that açai berries, which are rich in anthocyanins, influence the major inflammatory pathway involved in pain. This is known as the COX pathway and poses a potential therapeutic avenue for açai in pain management.
Grapes. Sounds like a wild card? I assure you, it’s not. Grapes do indeed classify as a berry, and I will say they’re worth their weight in gold when it comes to health benefits. For the purposes of looking at the available research, I’m going to big-up sultanas in lieu of grapes. They’re nutritionally the same, and in many respects, sultanas pip grapes at the post, boasting higher nutrients and phytochemical content. Folate, for example, seems to be higher in sultanas compared to grapes. Go figure! Sultanas also have more concentrated levels of quercetin, an anti-inflammatory polyphenol useful in allergies and asthma.
Grapes are available most of the year. However sultanas are available literally all the time. Sultanas could be the most versatile and perfect little dried fruit worth sampling. Some of the best evidence for sultanas health benefits lies in their ability to influence hunger signalling and satiety. They’re a low G.I. fruit, as are grapes. They’re widely endorsed as a functional food for cardiovascular disease and obesity.
Vegan Blueberry Muffins
Want a delicious, healthy and vegan twist on a classic? Give this blueberry muffin recipe a go. These muffins have the wholegrain goodness of spelt and wheat bran for extra fibre. It’s gently sweetened by apple sauce and coconut sugar. Of course it’s full of some very healthy blueberries as well. Yum!
Vegan Blueberry Muffins
- 230g (1½ cups) spelt flour
- 70g (1 cup) wheat bran
- 110 g (½ cup) coconut sugar
- 2 tbsp ground flaxseed
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- 200g (1⅓ cups) blueberries
- 315ml unsweetened almond milk
- 125g (½ cup) unsweetened apple sauce
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- Preheat the oven to 190°C (170° fan). Line a 12 pan muffin tin with paper muffin cases.
- Stir together the spelt flour, wheat bran, coconut sugar, ground flaxseed, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and spices in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the blueberries.
- Stir together the almond milk, apple sauce and lemon juice in a measuring jug or mixing bowl until just combined.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry, stirring until just combined.
- Divide batter between the muffin cases. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until risen and dry to the touch; a toothpick should come out clean when ready.
- Allow the muffins to cool in their tray before serving.
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