Leslie Shallcross

Leslie Shallcross

My early food memories are not so clear and may certainly be embellished or conflated, but spring brings memories of crocuses, pussy willows and berries. My younger sister preferred scarlet, fragrant strawberries while I preferred plump, less showy blueberries.

I can’t remember the specifics, although the berry consumption might have had to do with our birthdays — mine in April and my sister’s in May. Now, you may want to stop me here because spring is definitely not ripening time for Alaska blueberries (I told you I might have some confusion); however, the many varieties of berries and our ever-expanding markets, including both South and North America, mean that fresh blueberries and strawberries can be purchased at nearly any time of the year.

According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, North American-grown blueberries can be purchased from April until late September while South American imports cover us for the rest of the year. Similarly, strawberries are grown in the U.S. January through November with their peak season April through June. Mexico and Chile fill in during December and through the lower production months. These facts seem to jive with my memory (maybe not so bad after all) and the recent grocery store appearance of quart-sized packages of perfectly ripe blueberries and strawberries. I have purchased and very quickly consumed some wonderful fresh blueberries in the past couple of weeks in association with my birthday month.

Regardless of the season, eating berries may not only be a fond memory but also may help to keep those memories with protective effects for the brain and cardiovascular system. Research involving children and adults has shown improved cognition and memory after they consumed berries and berry extracts. One very recently published study on healthy people showed eating blueberries produced reductions in blood pressure equivalent to the effects of blood pressure medication. This supports an earlier study showing significantly reduced blood pressure in women with prehypertension who regularly consumed blueberries.

In addition, the anti-inflammatory compounds in blueberries are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and may have a direct effect in supporting brain health. Reducing blood pressure is important for brain health and heart health. Strawberries and blueberries have also both been linked to improved cardiovascular health. One study, among many, showed that women who consumed three or more half-cup servings of blueberries or strawberries each week had a 34% reduction in heart attacks.

In addition to the low calorie package of vitamins, minerals and fiber, blueberries and strawberries are particularly rich in chemical compounds called anthocyanins. This term refers to numerous beneficial plant compounds that can make blood vessels more elastic, protect DNA from damage, suppress pathways causing inflammation, improve nerve transmission and help lower blood sugar. A note on our Alaska blueberries — research done through the UAF Cooperative Extension Service showed that these compounds were retained in prepared berry products like jam or when they were frozen, juiced or dried. Alaska wild blueberries are also many times higher in anthocyanins than commercial Lower 48 berries.

You probably don’t need much help in figuring out how to eat more berries but just in case here are a few ideas: fresh for a dessert or snack, blended with yogurt for smoothies, sweetened for crepe filling, chopped in a salsa, pureed for a salad dressing base, sliced or whole in salads, cooked in your breakfast oatmeal or dried, added to homemade granola, muffins or quick breads or dehydrated for a healthy fruit leather. Berries are highly perishable. If you buy an excess of berries, be sure to consume them within a few days. If you can’t use them up, pop them in the freezer. They don’t need to be blanched like vegetables. Just spread them on a cookie sheet and freeze for a short period, until they are hard. Then carefully place them in a freezer-safe container like a zip-lock bag and back into the freezer until you need them.

I can’t say whose memory is better, my sister’s or mine, but I think while I’m in Alaska, I’ll stick with the blueberries.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or lashallcross@alaska.edu.