By Joanna Evans
Berries have been a major part of our diet for centuries, but only recently have scientists taken an interest in their constituents and potential health benefits. Now, they’re finding that berries of all varieties–from strawberries and raspberries to goji and açaí berries–may hold the key to combating cancer, dementia and other diseases.
Scientists recently reported the first human evidence that blueberries can boost memory and may even help ward off dementia. Nine older adults with early memory decline drank two cups of a commercial blueberry juice every day for two months, while a control group drank a beverage without blueberry juice. Tests taken before and after revealed that those who drank the blueberry juice showed improvement in learning and memory, leading researchers to conclude that blueberries may offer neurocognitive benefits.
These results confirm the findings of previous animal studies, which showed that blueberries can reverse age-related deficits of both brain and behavioral function. Rats fed a blueberry-supplemented diet performed better in maze and object-recognition tests, as well as in tests of balance and coordination. Similar benefits have been seen with cranberries and strawberries.
Numerous studies have suggested that berries are potent cancer-fighters. In one test-tube study, extracts of six different kinds of berries–blueberry, blackberry, black raspberry, red raspberry, cranberry and strawberry–inhibited the growth of human mouth, breast, colon and prostate cancer cells. In addition, two of the extracts–black raspberry and strawberry—were able to stimulate apoptosis (cell death) in colon cancer cells. Açaí berries appear to be effective against leukemia cells, while the polysaccharides found in goji berries kill prostate cancer cells. To determine whether these lab results apply to real life, human trials are ongoing.
Berries may also have a role to play in the prevention of heart disease. A group of 72 middle-aged men and women were asked to consume either two portions of berries daily (100 grams of berries plus a small glass of a berry drink) or control products for two months. The berry group–whose members’ diets included bilberries, lingonberries, blackcurrants, strawberries, chokeberries and raspberries–ate an assortment of the berries whole, pureed or in juice form. At the end of the study, the berry-eaters saw systolic blood pressure reductions of up to 7.3mmHg, while levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL (“good” cholesterol), rose more than 5 percent.
Several animal studies suggest some berries may have antidiabetic effects. Indeed, a recent study in mice concluded that bilberries can improve hyperglycemia and insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes. Although human trials are scarce, one found that a dietary supplement containing blueberry and sea buckthorn (seaberry; genus Hippophae) concentrates was beneficial in treating children with type 1 diabetes.