Berries are rich in vitamin C and fiber, yet low in calories. They also provide folate and potassium. But what makes berries special are their phytochemicals, notably anthocyanins—the pigments that give them their intense colors. Anthocyanins are potent antioxidants that fight oxidative cell damage and may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Berries rank higher in antioxidant power than most fruits and vegetables. In animal studies, blueberries have been found to improve memory and other brain functions. Lab studies also show that berry extracts may inhibit tumor growth, decrease blood clotting and have other beneficial effects.
Berries should be dry, firm and plump. Local berries usually taste best. Size doesn’t matter, but color does. Blueberries should be deep blue-purple, not red. With some exceptions (like golden raspberries), green and yellow berries are unripe. Choose bright red strawberries with green caps attached.
Berry juices are increasingly available, but they are expensive and are often mainly grape juice. Watch out for syrups in canned berries, which add calories. Berry jams retain only minuscule amounts of vitamin C and are mostly sugar. Dried berries may also have fewer nutrients and added sugar.
Cranberries—and possibly blueberries—can help reduce urinary tract infections by preventing bacteria from adhering to cells on the lining of the bladder. If you tend to get urinary tract infections, you may want to try cranberry juice as a preventive measure. The best dose is not known; one study found that 10 ounces of cranberry juice cocktail a day significantly reduced infection rates.
Be aware that cooking destroys much of the vitamin C and folate in berries, but not fiber or most phytochemicals. Good bets: Add fresh, frozen or dried berries to salads, cereal, yogurt, smoothies, pancake or muffin batter and grain dishes.