- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Berries are the little black dress of the fruit world, always available, fresh or frozen, quick to grab — and best of all, they’re guaranteed to make you look and feel great.

Low in fat, high in fiber and packed with nutrients, they’re among the foods with the highest concentration of antioxidants.

Berries even may play a role in the fight against diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. OK, you’re hearing that about a lot of foods these days, but it definitely is proving to be true about berries.

Studies also have shown a connection between berries and age-related diseases. Recently, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked blueberries as No. 1 in antioxidant activity when compared with 40 other fruits and vegetables. Strawberries came in second. That’s the nutritional equivalent of taking first and second place in the Miss America pageant.

Maybe berries will turn out to be part of that fountain of youth we’ve all been seeking. So, slowly, put down that low-carb (and probably high-sugar) nutrition bar and listen up.

If we listed the top 20 foods researchers consider to be the most nutritious at the moment, five kinds of berries would be on that list: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and blackberries. That’s impressive.

So what’s the deal with berries? Berries are prized for their nonnutritive plant chemicals, which are called phytochemicals. (Don’t zone out on me.) Phytochemicals are naturally occurring antioxidants that add flavor, color and scent to plants. Antioxidants protect the body against free radicals (a term you surely have heard but may not fully comprehend).

In a nutshell, free radicals are natural byproducts of the human oxygen metabolism. What makes them dangerous is that they are missing an electron, so they are highly unstable. To make up for the missing electron, the free radicals scour our bodies in search of a mate and will attack whatever they can to become complete, whether it is DNA, enzymes or key proteins. Over time, if left unattended, free radicals can increase your risk of cell damage, leading to chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer and dementia.

Antioxidants are our body’s natural defense mechanism. They’re sent out like the SWAT team to reduce the threat by supplying free radicals with the missing electron they seek. Once stabilized, the free radicals are no longer a threat. Our bodies produce some antioxidants on their own, but it’s important to have backup.

Here’s a little antioxidant experiment you can try at home. It’s like a simple science experiment. Cut an apple in half and leave one half on the counter. Rub the other half with a cut strawberry. After about an hour, by the process of oxidation, the unrubbed half will start to turn brown, but the half you rubbed with strawberry will retain its natural color because the Vitamin C will have slowed down the oxidation process.

That’s what antioxidants do in your body. Need I say more? So how do you recognize foods that are high in antioxidants? I’m a dietitian, and I always tell my clients to think color when they eat. The darker or brighter a fruit or vegetable is, the more nutrients and antioxidants it contains. You don’t get much darker or brighter than raspberry red or blueberry blue.

Every berry has its own unique blend of phytochemicals. Blueberries, for example, contain anthocyanins (named for the Greek for purple flower). Cranberries, strawberries and raspberries have a slightly different set of phytochemicals; some cross over. Each one affects the body in a slightly different way and therefore can be more beneficial for different types of illnesses.

So what does this dietitian prescribe? It’s simple. Eat an assortment of berries — about 1/2 cup of mixed berries per day. Not only will you be getting needed antioxidants; berries also contain useful amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, folic acid and fiber all vital nutrients.

You may be wondering how a food as small as a berry can be so good for you. Don’t knock the berries’ small size. Didn’t our mothers always teach us that good things come in small packages? This applies to more than just bling.

As with most fruits, the antioxidants in berries are concentrated in the skin. Plant skins protect the fruit from rain, sun and other environmental hazards by concentrating key antioxidants there. They also protect you.

For many years, berries didn’t get much attention. They were thought to be low in nutrients and health benefits compared with other fruits. Their nutritional virtues may be new to us, but American Indians used berries for many medicinal purposes, from treating stomach disorders to easing the pain of childbirth.

Throughout history, strawberries have figured prominently in legend, art and poetry and as an aphrodisiac of the highest quality. More recently, berries have taken their rightful place center stage.

Berries are available frozen, dried and, of course, fresh. You may be surprised to learn that frozen berries are just as good and nutritious as fresh. I’d shy away from the canned versions, however, which generally are packed in sugary syrup.

As far as dried berries are concerned, buy unsweetened whenever possible.

Eating sweetened berries is a little like dousing a nice healthy salad with creamy ranch dressing. I’m not saying they won’t taste good; they’re just better for you without the added sugar.

I also urge my clients to buy organic berries when possible. Most berries are treated with pesticides to prevent pests and molds.

The health benefits are highly concentrated in dried berries, but so are these chemicals. Organic is the best way to avoid problems.

So what’s the best way to incorporate berries into your diet? Don’t be shy. This isn’t a first date. Add a variety of berries to cereals (hot or cold), pancakes, salads, yogurts, smoothies and shakes, not to mention eating them my favorite way: straight out of the container.

Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to eat cranberries. They’re delicious in muffins, sauces, salads and even salsa all year round.

The effort is worth it. Berries average less than 40 calories and less than .5 grams of fat per 1/2 cup (or 1/4 cup for dried berries). I bet you can’t say that about a low-carb snack bar.

Summer is here, fresh berries are in season, and I can’t think of a better way to incorporate antioxidants into your diet. Maybe you’ll end up fitting into that little black dress.

Betsy’s basic berry shake

The ABCs: You will need a blender. Use fresh berries to make a thinner shake; frozen berries to make a thicker shake.

If you like your shakes thinner, add more apple cider. If you like your shakes thicker, add more ice or frozen fruit. There is no way to mess up.

½ cup mixed berries, washed (and hulled, if using strawberries)

1 small banana

½ cup apple cider or apple juice

1/4 cup low-fat strawberry sherbet or frozen yogurt

1 cup ice

Combine berries, banana, cider or juice, sherbet or yogurt, and ice in a blender and blend at high speed until mixture is smooth. Makes 2 servings.

Per serving: 130 calories, 1 gram fat, 30 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 2 grams protein.

Betsy Klein is a registered dietitian and nutritional consultant in Miami. For answers to questions, visit www.betsykleinrd.com.

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