Freshly harvested raspberries in Chile. Photo by Zoe Helene
It’s berry season — and if it isn’t enough that these red, purple, indigo, black, and blue delights are a real treat to look at and eat, they are also chock-full of nutrients and health benefits.
“Almost all berries are rich in a group of compounds called anthocyanins,” says Chris Kilham, an expert on plant-based health and professor of a popular Ethnobotany course titled “The Shaman’s Pharmacy” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “This is what gives them their deep red, blue and purple colors, and anthocyanins are also significantly antioxidant, which means they help to maintain the health of cells throughout the body.”
Berries are also inflammation-fighters. Since inflammation is “part and parcel” of illnesses — chronic conditions included — “reducing inflammation through dietary means can reduce many degenerative diseases,” Kilham tells Yahoo Health.
Berries also have precious few calories, which means you can derive major nutritional benefit at literally no cost. They were a major food source to Native Americans, who consumed them fresh in season and dried in the winter, mixing them up with fat for a nutrient-rich, high-energy food.
While scientific research continues to reveal new properties, herbalists through the centuries have used and continue to use common, seasonal berries to heal and treat different conditions, says Vivienne Campbell, a qualified medical herbalist in County Clare, Ireland.
Here are a few uses that may come as a surprise to you:
These pretty red berries contain high amounts of quercetin and kaemferol, two of the the most highly broadly beneficial antioxidants, Kilham says. They have huge benefits for the heart, liver, and brain, among other organs. Studies have also shown that raspberries can help protect against certain types of cancers, he says.
Herbalists use both blackberries and raspberries to make simple and tasty tonics called “oxymels” that can soothe sore throats and relieve colds. Campbell explains how to make it:
Cover the fresh berries with white wine vinegar and leave for two days.
Mash them with a potato masher.
Strain through muslin into a measuring jug and note the amount.
Pour this juice into a pan.
Add half the volume of honey and gently boil for five minutes, stirring continuously.
Pour into a clean, sterilised bottle and add a tablespoon to a cup of hot water to use.
There may not be enough words to extoll the virtues of this “super berry,” which, among others, promotes brain function and contains compounds that help to stabilize blood sugar.
“For centuries, people have consumed blueberries for whole-body health,” Kilham says. Research shows they have cholesterol-lowering benefits and can even improve eye health.
These berries, which grow wild in Europe and are related to our blueberries and cranberries, are exceptionally rich in vitamin C. Campbell says they can also be used as a gargle for sore throats.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates referred to the elder plant as his “medicine chest,” Kilham says, because every part of it is so valuable. The tiny blackish/purplish berries grow profusely in the U.S., and they have the same antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as their other berry cousins.
The elderberry is also a great immunity booster, Campbell says, and research has shown it’s effective against the flu. Be careful, though, as elderberries can cause upset the stomach if eaten raw. “They taste delicious, but must be cooked and extracted into a syrup, tincture, or cordial,” she says.
Rich in iron, potassium, and vitamin C, the wild version of summer’s most popular berry is “tiny and has an intense and absolutely delicious flavor that is much sweeter and more aromatic than the large cultivated strawberries that are sold in supermarkets,” Campbell says.
They also “make a great face mask that is very refreshing and revitalizing for the skin,” she adds.
Herbalists have used the small, bright red berries for centuries to promote heart health, and even today, some of them still use hawthorn berries to help ease conditions such as high blood pressure, Campbell says. Research suggests hawthorn extract has a “significant benefit” to chronic heart failure patients, when used with conventional medicine.
Also known as aronia, these berries are cultivated en masse in California and Oregon. They are extremely tart, Kilham says, so they are best consumed in sweetened foods like jams and juices.
Chokeberries have been shown to help reduce urinary tract infections, Kilham says, and some research suggests they could have a positive effect on blood pressure. “Aronia was widely used by Native American people and I think we’re going to see it become one of the real big berries over time,” he says.
Wild Berry Picking 101
In the summer months, foraging for wild berries is a popular pastime. However, “never, ever pick and eat a wild plant or berry unless you are 100 percent certain of its identity,” Campbell warns. “Edible and therapeutic plants often grow right next to poisonous plants and to the untrained eye they can seem very similar.”
For those who want to learn to safely pick and use plants from the wild, Campbell recommends attending a class with an expert forager. And if you are picking berries, make sure you’re doing so in an area that’s safe and that has not been treated with weed killers or other chemicals, Campbell says. “Pick away from areas where people walk their dogs and always wash plants before eating them.”