The illimitable blueberry
My Blue Heaven
by Mollie Doyle
Last July, my family and I discovered quite a few old high bush blueberries covered with ripe fruit near our house. For a couple of weeks, we would walk outside (several times a day), take thirty or so steps and then stand around a bush, pick, and eat. The berries were warm from the sun, and when we bit into them, they would pop, spilling juice in our mouths and sometimes down our chins. We had blue fingers. Blue tongues. It felt like finding gold.
Because they brought so much pleasure, I began to wonder about blueberries. I knew they were a “superfood,” but what did that mean? What do they really do for us? So, I began reading about them, talking to people. Now, I am in awe of blueberries, convinced that they are a miracle food, or just a miracle.
I am not alone in my excitement. Even the USDA, an organization known more for its understatement than hyperbole, calls blueberries, “phytonutrient superstars.” And in 1999, they went so far as to proclaim July as National Blueberry Month.
“I love them too,” says Dr. Oceana Rames of Vineyard Haven, who eats blueberries every day and takes a blueberry extract as a supplement. Dr. Rames, trained and nationally board-certified in Naturopathic Medicine and co-owner of Church and Main Natural Therapies, treats her patients with diet and nutrition, botanical medicines and homeopathy. Dr. Rames tells me, “Blueberries are on the top ten list of healthiest foods. They have ellagic acid, a powerful antioxidant that is antiviral, antibacterial, helps to keep cell walls healthy, and prevents cell damage. They also help with varicosity and blood circulation.” And Dr. Rames tells me they even improve vision. In World War II, night pilots ate bilberries, a close relative of our native blueberries, to improve their night vision. Several studies since then have proven what the fighter pilots already knew: that bilberries and blueberries significantly improve visual acuity and retinal function.
While I understand that eating blueberries has amazing healing potential, I want to know how…and why.
So, I called internationally known scientist Mary Ann Lila, Ph.D. Dr. Lila is a Professor and the Food Science Director of Plants for the Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University, where she also runs the Lila Lab, dedicated to studying berries. Dr. Lila has studied blueberries for 27 years and is the rock star of blueberry research. She began her career studying cranberries, but soon found that its closest relative, the blueberry, had more beneficial chemicals that could address many more human health conditions. Her innovative and groundbreaking work is what is responsible for us knowing most of what we know about the healing properties of blueberries.
These days she is one of the key players on the team of scientists who are mapping the blueberry genome, a project which is expected to be completed and published by the team this September. Having a map of a plant’s genome is important to us because when we know the entire system and chemical mechanisms of a plant, we understand how we can use it more effectively. For instance, when the blueberry genome is mapped, the medical community might be able to say, “Use this particular phytochemical to treat your tumors.” Versus “Eat more blueberries. Their phytochemicals have cancer-fighting agents.”
Dr. Lila explains why these phytochemicals exist, “Like us, plants have evolved over time. But there is one major difference: Plants are stationary. They cannot run from their predators—animals, bacteria, bugs, pollution, even water. So they have had to develop a complex and very sophisticated portfolio of protection: phytochemicals. These phytochemicals not only give a plant its color, but work to offer each plant all the things it needs to survive.”
Dr. Lila explains that this is why you want to eat blueberries from the wild—the more stressed they are (within reason), the more powerful the phytochemicals they produce.
Different plants have evolved to have different phytochemicals, according to the need of the plant. For example, anthocyanins, the phytochemical that makes a blueberry blue, evolved out of the plant’s need to protect its cells against damage caused by UV radiation. As Dr. Rames pointed out, when we eat blueberries, these anthrocyanins also work to protect our cells.
Dr. Lila expands on this. “This is why eating colorful fruits and vegetables is so important. The more color (phytochemicals) you eat, the more you are supporting your body. Look at your plate. Is it brown and white or is it a rainbow of color, red, orange, green, purple? You want a rainbow.”
“Phytochemicals are completely unlike a synthetic drug that targets one enzyme in the body. They work synergistically, affecting many areas of the body and each other. My work is to identify exactly how so that I can prove to doctors what your grandmother has already told you: eat your fruits and vegetables.” With the genome mapped this fall, she and all of us will soon know a lot more.
But I think there is something healing about blueberries that is more than cellular science. I can’t hold a blueberry without thinking about childhood summer days, tramping through the woods, avoiding poison ivy as I searched for wild blueberries. When I remember this, I can almost feel the roundness between my thumb and forefinger plucking a berry from a bush. And when I talked to friends—even Dr. Rames—about blueberries, stories of blueberry picking and pie making always came up. Like many, picking blueberries was my first experience of gathering food from the wild. Bucket in hand, sun on my back, I felt independent, the world was nourishing and abundant, anything was possible. A kind of blue heaven. I can’t think of anything more healing than this.