Blueberry Fools

27th August 2010

By April of this year they were outselling strawberries; by July they had overtaken raspberries – and traditional fruits like gooseberries and blackberries aren’t even in the running. Why have we taken blueberries to our hearts and palates?

Jill Glenn investigates how the British are turning into a nation of blueberry fools…

Our native soft fruits have fallen foul of the scourge of the superfruit. Like an advancing army, laying waste to everything in its path, the blueberry has marched into our supermarkets and shopping baskets, making itself at home in our fridges and fruit bowls. Twenty years ago blueberries were an exotic delight; today they’re stacked up at the entrance to the fruit and veg aisle all year round. We grow them, we import them and we eat them by the hundredweight: 11,000 tonnes were sold in the UK last year. A decade ago it was only 1,000.

It’s an astonishing rise, with a variety of causes. Blueberry muffins, the ubiquitous side order to lattes and cappucinos [see page xii for a feature on the endless popularity of frothy coffee], must have helped the increase in sales of the naked fruit, but statistics don’t reveal whether we’re buying them as a baking ingredient or whether we’re busy juicing them with a range of other phytochemical-rich vegetables and fruits for a ‘my body is a temple’ health kick.

Certainly the blueberry has plenty going for it. Especially if you’re a rat. Research shows that a diet rich in blueberries will improve both the learning capacity and the motor skills of an aging rat, making it the mental equivalent of a much younger rat. Want to navigate mazes? Rats on diets supplemented with dried blueberry powder were significantly better able to do this than those on spinach or strawberries. Want to balance on an accelerating rotating rod? Ditto.

Joking apart, though, over the last ten years plenty of work has been carried out in research laboratories the world over (and particularly in the USA, to which the blueberry is native) establishing that this super-nutritious fruit may help prevent or reduce the ravages of age-related neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Evaluating the ability of an aging rat (the equivalent of a 70-75 year old human) to balance on a rotating rod might sound ludicrous, but the result was very exciting to the researchers: it demonstrated that even age-related neuromotor dysfunction is reversible – and nothing else other than the blueberry has ever been shown to achieve this. One research study spawned another… and another… and another… and the cult of the blueberry was born.

It wasn’t news, though: the power of the blueberry had long been appreciated. When the Pilgrim Fathers arrived to colonise New England in 1620, native Americans had been consuming ‘starberries’ (the calyx of the blueberry bush forms a delicate five point star) for centuries as food and as medicine: drinking the juice to relieve coughs, brewing tea from the leaves as a tonic, eating the berries to sharpen their vision… and research is supporting what the native Americans knew instinctively.

It’s the colouring that makes it so powerful. The blue-black tint is created by anthocyanins, which have strong antioxidant properties and provide the pigmentation for all red, purple and blueish foods. You could eat red cabbage, and get much the same effect – but it just doesn’t taste the same in a muffin.

As well as helping to slow the aging process, anthocyanins have a role to play in protecting against heart disease and many cancers, in preventing blood clots, and in fighting allergies and inflammation. It’s easy to see why the label superfruit, or superfood, has been applied to produce that contains them. The blueberry isn’t quite the elixir of life, but it’s getting there.

I suspect, though, that the proliferation of antioxidants and attendant health benefits isn’t the only reason for our love affair with the blueberry. Flavour is another: tending to the sweet, the taste is sufficiently innocuous that even children generally like it. The big advantage though is that it’s small and neat and incredibly easy to prepare, requiring little more than a rinse under the tap: no chopping, no topping and tailing, no hulling, no stoning, no picking over. The perfect ingredient for a time-poor, cash-rich, fruit-friendly lifestyle, it also has a long shelf-life, which appeals to producers, retailers and consumers alike.

Palatable enough, the blueberry… but give me the bilberry in preference every time – smaller, sharper, fuller-flavoured, and a taste that takes me straight back to my childhood: summer Saturdays spent picking the wild fruit, and home-made bilberry pie for pudding on Sundays.

The native bilberry has many of the health benefits of the blueberry – but, sadly, it’ll never catch on commercially...

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