Monday, June 14, 2010

Blue is for Berries!

Wild blueberries were a valuable seasonal food gathered by Native Americans of the Northeast for thousands of years, just as huckleberries were to the native peoples of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. But it wasn't until the early 20th century in the state of New Jersey that blueberries were first domesticated for large scale cultivation. Since then, North America has become the world's largest blueberry producer; British Columbia, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Nova Scotia, Oregon and Quebec are among the top growers.

Until recently, California had virtually no blueberry crop, as the available varieties thrived only in cool moist climates. Thanks to the dedicated work of scientists at the University of Florida in the 1990's, hybrid blueberry varieties have been developed which grow well in warmer climates and the California blueberry crop has blossomed. Last year's harvest weighed in at 20 million pounds and the increasing demand for this delicious nutrient dense fruit is driving those numbers ever higher. As production has grown, prices for what has long been a luxury item in California have fallen and fresh blueberries can be found at more affordable prices during the height of the growing season.

Berries of all sorts have lately become the focus of much interest for their healthy properties, and a growing body of new research indicates that the antioxidants and other nutrients in berries may be important keys to protection against certain cancers, improving memory and learning capacity, lowering LDL cholesterol, maintaining normal blood sugar levels and supporting healthy eyesight. Anthocyanins are the purple- blue antioxidant compounds which make blueberries blue; they are also present in significant amounts in many other plant foods such as cherries, red and purple grapes, red cabbage, beets, cranberries, blood oranges, strawberries and cocoa.

Fresh blueberries are most nutritious when eaten raw; enjoy them solo for snacks at work or school, or add a handful to your favorite fruit salad. For a special treat, blend blueberries with nut milk or soy milk; serve immediately in chilled glasses. Summer is the season for blue velvet smoothies!