What phytochemical starts with the letters “pt-?” If “pterodactyl” is all you can think of, you’re probably not a scientist who does research on berries. At a scientific conference last month, pterostilbene (pronounced tero-STILL-bean), a phytochemical in blueberries, was the subject of a research presentation because of its potential to lower cancer risk.
Phytochemicals are natural substances that help plants survive. Among other things, they create color and scent to attract pollinators or ward off predators. Oddly enough, phytochemicals are turning out to be a boon to human health, too, if you eat a lot of them as part of a mostly plant-based diet.
Berries’ jewel-like colors tell you that they are bursting with phytochemicals. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are stars of the spring-summer season, and many scientists believe they have potential to fight several types of cancer.
Pterostilbene is abundant in blueberries. A pilot study reported last month by scientists from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service found fewer pre-cancerous lesions in the colons of lab rats receiving pterostilbene.
Anthocyanidins (“an-tho-sye-A-na-dins”) also have a good spelling-bee name. These phytochemicals give color to blueberries. Test tube studies so far suggest that anthocyanidins may help prevent liver cancer growth.
That doesn’t mean other berries are weaklings when it comes to phytochemicals. Ellagic acid, an antioxidant compound, is common to virtually all berries. It seems to block metabolic pathways that can lead to cancer. In animals, it has inhibited development of colon, esophageal, liver, lung and skin cancers.
“Initially we didn’t realize there were a lot of other compounds in berries besides ellagic acid with cancer-preventing benefits,” says AICR-funded researcher Dr. Gary Stoner of Ohio State University. “Once we started looking into berries, we found they had other phenols, like quercetin [“KER-suh-tin”], as well as some calcium and selenium and vitamins A, vitamin C and vitamin E.”
Fresh berries may cost more than other fruits, but their health value is well worth the cost. Eating just 3 or 4 half-cup servings of berries each week yields high enough concentrations of phytochemicals in the blood to prompt self-destruction of cancer cells, studies suggest, although more research is needed. When berries are part of a daily diet that includes plenty of different vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, the many phytochemicals, vitamins and fiber you are eating likely work together to reinforce protection from cancer.
Bags of frozen berries often cost less for larger amounts and are just as full of nutrients and phytochemicals as the fresh versions. (Avoid frozen berries packaged in sugary syrup, however.) For cooking, frozen berries have more liquid, so they are better for sauces, desserts or yogurt toppings than for baking. Or, you can freeze your own: Place them unwashed on a plate or cookie sheet in a single layer. After they freeze, put them in zip-top plastic bags. Be sure to wash them before using. Berry juices are another way to get berry benefits, although you won’t get as much fiber.
Keep fresh berries in an aerated container or plastic bag up to 5 days; wash them only before you are going to eat them. Often slightly tart-tasting, berries are delicious puréed into salad dressings or sauces served with poultry and fish. They also perk up salads, as in AICR’s Mixed Greens with Blueberries and Feta Cheese (or “Blue and White Salad”).
They make great chilled smoothies like our Strawberry-Melon Smoothie.
In a blender, purée blueberries and half the buttermilk until completely smooth. Add remaining buttermilk, orange juice, honey, zest and cinnamon (if using). Process until mixture is smooth. Chill soup at least 30 minutes or overnight. About 30 minutes before serving, remove soup from refrigerator and let stand. Just before serving, divide fruit among 4 shallow soup bowls. Pour soup into each bowl. In cup, mix sour cream with sugar and place a spoonful in the center of each bowl of soup. Top each serving with 3 mint leaves. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings. Per serving: 210 calories, 6 g. total fat (3 g. saturated fat), 37 g. carbohydrate, 6 g. protein, 4 g. dietary fiber, 143 mg. sodium.
Mixed Berry Cobbler
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In medium bowl, combine thawed fruit with sugar. Mix in cornstarch and salt, stirring well. Bake in 8x8 or 9x9 square baking dish for 45 minutes, stirring once after 25 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare biscuit topping. Mix together both flours, brown sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter and canola oil to consistency of cornmeal. Stir in milk until just combined, forming a soft drop biscuit dough. When fruit is done, remove from oven. Turn oven up to 425 degrees. Carefully drop biscuit dough in small mounds over fruit. Lightly sprinkle top with cinnamon and brown sugar. Return cobbler immediately to oven and bake 10-12 minutes or until biscuits are lightly browned and fruit is bubbly. Top with ice cream, if desired.
Makes 9 servings. Per serving: 181 calories, 4 g total fat (2 g saturated fat), 33 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 4 g dietary fiber, 84 mg sodium.
Very Berry Smoothie
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Place berries, jam and yogurt in a blender. Blend at high speed to a smooth purée. Gradually add enough milk and ice to reach desired consistency and smoothness. If desired, strain through a fine sieve to remove seeds. Serve immediately.
Makes 2 servings. Per serving: 214 calories, 2 g. total fat (1 g. saturated fat), 42 g. carbohydrate, 7 g. protein, 3 g. dietary fiber, 84 mg. sodium.