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Today we’re going to talk about berries, an important member of the Four Foods.

As we discussed in the past, the Four Foods are:

  • Beans (for their micronutrients and phytochemicals and for their protein and fiber).
  • Greens (also for their micronutrients and phytochemicals).
  • Berries (for their antioxidants).
  • Seeds (for their omega-3 fatty acids and phytochemicals).

Last week we talked all about Why Mom Was Right when she told us to eat our greens. Before that, we talked about the Brilliant Bean and how just one cup a day can add years to your life.

So today, let’s talk about one of nature’s greatest gifts– the incomparable berry.

Sweetly delicious and nutritious, berries offer us one of the most pleasurable ways to seriously support our health.

What Makes a Berry a Berry?

For definition purposes, there are two types of berries — botanical and horticultural.

  • A botanical berry is defined as a fleshy fruit without a pit. Botanical berries not commonly known as berries include bananas, grapes, tomatoes— and even eggplant.
  • Horticultural berries don’t have pits either, but they might have lots of “pips” or seeds. They are typically round, brightly colored and juicy. Horticultural berries can be sweet or sour and the group includes strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which are commonly called berries, but are not botanical berries.

Berries classified under both definitions are blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, gooseberries, lingonberries and elderberries.  For our purposes, we’ll be talking about bright, deep colored, small, edible fruits like blueberries and cranberries, but also strawberries and blackberries — even if they’re not true botanical berries.

Before We Begin — Should We Really Eat so Much Fruit

Before we launch into the whole subject of berries, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the idea of whether we should be eating fruits at all, a topic we explored last year in this blog post.

In that article, we talked about some of the myths swirling around the evils of fructose. In the end, we demonstrated how the natural fructose in fiber-rich fruits is good for you and that–despite all the myths–you should be eating fruits.

And the more the better.

Berry, Berry Good for You

Despite their small size, berries have gigantic health-promoting properties. One of the most well-known and important qualities of berries is their high antioxidant content. Compared to any other food (except spices), berries have the highest antioxidant content per serving.

You can prevent and reduce the risk of many metabolic and age-related afflictions by eating your berries. They can:

  • Prevent and Fight Cancer. Berries fight cancer by, among other mechanisms, inhibiting angiogenesis (the creation of new blood vessels) and boosting natural killer (NK) cell activity—they’re very good at reducing damage and suppressing cancer in vitro. Raspberries and strawberries have been shown to reverse precancerous lesions in the mouth and esophagus.
  • Reduce the Risk of Heart and Lung Disease. Since they hold platelets in an inactivated state, berries might also help reduce heart disease risk. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) — the 3rd place killer disease in the U.S. — might even be slowed by eating berries.
  • Boost Memory.  According to recent studies, blueberries can also improve memory in human beings. (And their memory-boosting strength might even survive processing into jams and jellies — just make sure to store them in the fridge.)
  • Slow Brain Decline. Strawberries, along with blueberries have been linked to delayed cognitive decline by as many as two and a half years.
  • Improve Sleep. And finally, berries can help you get a good night’s sleep — they’re packed with melatonin, a natural sleep-promoting chemical.

What About the Super Popular Açaí Berry

There’s a big hype about açaí berries right now. Since they’re from my home country of Brazil, I thought it would be worth to briefly discuss the popular, powerful açaí.

Here are some of the initial results from studies conducted on the açaí berry.

They appeared to:

  • Kill off leukemia cells. In one study, scientists saw a huge rise in the death rate of leukemia cells when they dripped a concentration of açaí berry phytonutrients on them.
  • Boost immune cell function. At extremely low doses, the berries also seem to greatly improve immune cell function.
  • Reduce pain and improve range of motion. In studies done with people suffering with conditions such as osteoarthritis, the consumption of açaí berries showed reduced pain levels as well as heightened range of motion.
  • Stabilize blood sugar levels. A study on the effect of açaí on metabolism showed that even when allowed to take frozen açaí pulp with sugar, study participants’ cholesterol and insulin levels dropped and so did their fasting blood sugar levels.

The initial results are impressive for the açaí.  But it is important to underline the fact that there are many other powerful berries besides the açaí that share similar disease fighting, health-promoting qualities.

A Word About Cancer

The anti-cancer abilities of berries are now the ‘stuff’ of legend.  Here are some more details:


  • Slow down cancer growth. Berries have an anti-proliferative effect that can inhibit cancer cell growth— and the higher the dose, the better. In recent studies, raspberries blocked cancer growth by about 50%. Strawberries did better, blocking nearly 75% of growth. (For the record, organic berries did better than their conventionally grown counterparts.)
  • Starve tumors of their blood supply. The phytonutrients in berries block the cancer cells from creating the new blood vessels they need to feed and grow.

The Simple Strawberry Slays Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is quick and deadly with a well-defined progression: first, precancerous cells are seen; second, a tumor starts to grow and third, the cancer spreads and the patient dies. Sadly, the five-year survival rate is only 13% and most people die within the first year of diagnosis. Because of the cancer’s predictable progression, scientists made the deadly cancer a test subject for studying the effect of strawberries on esophageal cancer in humans. The results?  Strawberries won!

In patients with precancerous lesions of the esophagus, six months of eating 1 to 2 ounces of freeze dried strawberries per day (a little over a pound of fresh strawberries) reversed the disease by 80%!  All of the subjects showed some level of precancerous disease at the start of the study. By the end, most of the lesions had gone from moderate to mild — or had completely disappeared.

In fact, about 50% of the people on high doses of strawberries were completely free of disease at the end of the study.  

The Best Cancer-Fighting Berry of All

What’s the deadliest berry if you’re a cancer cell? Cranberries. In vitro studies show that relatively small amounts of cranberries suppress the growth of colon, brain, liver, ovarian, breast and oral cancer cells. However, those results were seen with total cranberry extracts using the whole raw fruit. Cranberry juice and sweetened cranberry products won’t yield the same results — again, the whole fruit is always best.

Speaking of Cranberries — What About Bladder Infections?

You’ve probably heard that cranberries or cranberry juice is good for bladder infections. Is it true? Yes and no.

Cranberries provide excellent protection for the bladder, but they don’t fare as well in treatment of bladder infections. That’s because certain compounds in cranberries block the action of infection-causing bacteria like E. coli and prevent them from sticking to the walls of the bladder and causing infection. But those compounds aren’t able to wash away the bacteria once they’ve attached.

Still, studies show a 35% reduction in the recurrence of bladder infections when cranberries are added to the diet. Antibiotics are better at reducing the recurrence, but they come with side effects and the risk of increased resistance. So eat and drink (real) cranberries to prevent, but not treat your ailing bladder.

Eat Your Berries

Approximately 50% of the world’s commercial strawberry production and 60% of the strawberry fruit grown in California is produced from varieties developed right here at UC Davis.  But even here in California, it can be tough to find fresh berries in the winter time.

So how do you add these miracle fruits to your diet when the bushes outside are bare?

Good news: berries stand up well to the freezer — both physically and nutritionally. Try to find organic when you can and stock your freezers for the winter — with sweet, healthful berries.

In the end, berries are blockbuster agents to health and rightly belong in the list of the Four Foods.  The added benefit? There are so many varieties and each has its own brand of deliciousness.

So look for ways to blend the beautiful berry into your life.

Today. And every day.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.