PUBLISHED: 2:31 PM on Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Alaska home to wild 'miracle' berries
Rumor has it that Southeast will have a good berry season this year. In fact, some types of berries may be ready for picking as early as next week. If you were unaware, berries - especially blueberries - have been identified as nature's antioxidant powerhouses.

Blueberries were named the "Miracle Berry" in 1999. This revelation stemmed from a Tufts University research designed to examine blueberries and their effect on memory and motor skills. The studies ranked blueberries number one in antioxidant activity when compared with 40 other commercially available fruits and vegetables.

Courtesy photo
  Blueberries were named the "Miracle Berry" in 1999, and research has reaffirmed Alaska wild berries as a great source of nutrients.
The berries used in the Tufts study were Maine blueberries so when the health benefits associated with berries reached consumers, Alaskans wanted to know how Alaska blueberries compared. The Cooperative Extension Service UAF decided to find out. Funded through a USDA grant awarded in 2003, Extension professionals set about having the antioxidant levels tested in berries gathered across the state.

At this point, you may be wondering, "What are antioxidants and why are they important?" Antioxidants are a group of biochemicals that work to absorb electrons from free radicals that damage healthy cells. Although research is on-going, experts have reported that free radical damage may contribute to aging, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, schizophrenia, memory loss, Parkinson's disease, atherosclerosis, and emphysema, among others. Thereby, antioxidants have been shown to be an important part of the human diet.

  Dr. Sonja Koukel
To determine the levels of antioxidants in foods, researchers use a ORAC test (oxygen radical absorption capacity). Original research with fruits showed cultivated blueberries with a score of 24 which is higher than other commercial fruits that were included in the studies. Anything above 40 is considered very high. Antioxidant levels in wild Alaska blueberries score even higher on the ORAC scale:

• Blue huckleberry: 111

• Dwarf Blueberry: 85

• Bog Blueberry: 77

• Alaska Blueberry: 76

• Wild Blueberry (Lower 48): 61

Since few people eat fresh berries, a second experiment was conducted to examine what happened to antioxidant levels when berries were processed. Using recommended recipes from the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, a variety of processed products were made with bog blueberries: jam, jelly, sauce, freezer jam, fruit leather, canned and frozen berries.

Results from the study found that most processing methods did result in reducing antioxidant levels of the berries, yet the levels were still very high in comparison to other fruits. Drying the fruits and making fruit leather concentrated the skin and pulp, thereby significantly increasing the antioxidant levels in each gram of product (420 and 270, respectfully). This research reaffirmed that Alaska wild berries are a great source of nutrients. Processing methods do not eliminate antioxidants and dryAing fruits concentrates the antioxidants to extremely high levels. Extension is conducting further studies using lingonberries, low-bush cranberries, salmonberries, and other selected Alaska berries. (Results from these studies are being compiled and will be made available to the public in the near future.)

So, if you add one food to your diet this year, make it blueberries. As Tufts researcher, Dr. Ronald L. Prior, stated: "One-half cup of blueberries delivers as much antioxidant power as five servings of other fruits and vegetables - such as peas, carrots, apples, squash and broccoli. While variety is still the key to a healthy diet, I'm eating blueberries regularly."

Oh, and yes, make those Alaska Wild Blueberries.

Dr. Koukel is the Juneau District Agent for the Home Economics Programs of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.