Breaking down berries: What makes them so super?

March 22, 2018 Providence Health Team

  • Many berries and other fruits have developed a reputation as superfoods.
  • Acai berries, blueberries, goji berries and cranberries each rank high in their ability to help us maintain good overall health.
  • Heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and gastrointestinal dysfunction are just a few of the health risks that fruits can protect against.

Acai berries, blueberries, cranberries, goji berries … these days the list of berries that have been touted as “superberries” seems to go on and on. Many berries are heralded as “the ultimate anti-aging superfood,” and it’s been suggested the benefits of eating certain berries keep your brain young, skin glowing, and reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But are berries really all that “super”?  Do they live up to the hype, and if so, which berries are best for you? 


The berry breakdown


Acai berries ­ Although you’re not likely to find the acai berry on store shelves, it’s difficult to escape hearing about it. The acai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) berry is tops on many so-called superfood lists. Grown in Central and South America, this powerhouse berry is the fruit of the Amazon palm tree. Because the delicate fruit, which is the size of a small grape, is difficult to transport, you are most likely to find it as an ingredient in smoothies or as juice in the refrigerated or freezer section of most natural food stores.

According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements, the acai berry possesses “the highest [antioxidant capacity] of any food reported to date.”  Acai berries also contain fiber and heart-healthy fats. The study revealed that in about a dozen people with painful conditions like osteoarthritis, there was a significant reduction in pain and in increase in range of motion. Additional health benefits associated with the acai berry include assisting with weight loss, healthy skin, detoxification, and treating high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction.

Blueberries ­ Blueberries are typically available in the U.S. as Highbush blueberries, while Lowbush blueberries are often referred to as "wild" blueberries. The Lowbush type is typically smaller and richer in some antioxidants. Blueberries have the highest antioxidant capacity of all commonly consumed fruits and vegetables, and are a rich source of phytochemicals called polyphenols. Polyphenols have been reported by a number of studies to offer protective benefits associated with cardiovascular health. Wild blueberries may help protect cholesterol in the blood from becoming damaged and may also help in lowering blood pressure for people with hypertension. In addition, their high concentration of antioxidants can help neutralize DNA-damaging  free radicals. In one 4-week study, 168 participants were instructed to drink one liter (34 ounces) of a mixture of blueberry and apple juice every day. At the end of the study, oxidative DNA damage due to free radicals was reduced by 20 percent.

Goji berries ­ If enhancing vitality is your aim, the goji berry may help. The bright orangish-red goji berry grows on a shrub that originated in China. In Asian cultures, goji berries are thought to promote longevity. One recent study found that people consuming Goji berries for 14 days reported an increase in energy levels, quality of sleep and mental acuity, and improved regularity of gastrointestinal function. In addition, many of those in the study reported significantly increased athletic performance. Chinese medicine practitioners commonly use bright red-orange goji berries to treat diabetes and high blood pressure, maintain eye health, and nourish the liver and kidneys.

Cranberries ­ Despite a recent study suggesting that cranberries cannot prevent urinary tract infections, or UTIs, there are still many positive health benefits associated with this fruit that is a “cousin” to blueberries. Cranberries are infection-fighting berries that ought to be enjoyed year-round, not just during the Thanksgiving holiday. They’re packed with a group of flavonoids called proanthocyanidins, which may help keep the heart healthy and fight cancer. Research has found that polyphenolic extracts from cranberries inhibit the growth and proliferation of breast, colon, prostate, lung, and even esophageal tumor cells. It's thought that cranberry compounds may inhibit cancer cell growth by causing the harmful cells to die off, reducing their ability to invade surrounding tissues. In an analysis of the antioxidant phenol content of 20 fruits, the cranberry was found to have the highest total phenol content.

Fruits are nature’s gift to humankind, and many are life-enhancing, great tasting medicines packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and many phytonutrients (plant-derived micronutrients). Not only are fruits such as acai berries, blueberries, goji berries and cranberries an absolute feast to our sight, their flavor and unique nutrient profile helps the human body maintain energy, feel rejuvenated, and potentially remain free of many diseases.


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