Berry time brings harvest of valuable micronutrients

The berry invasion has arrived, enticing us with ruby, royal purple and crimson-colored super foods to dial-up our lives and energy now that spring has sprung. Here's Part One of a primer on my top picks for the best of the berries. Next week brings Part Two and a short berry quiz to see if you were paying attention!

Blueberries: the purple powerhouse

I grew up on wild Canadian blueberries, and I still fantasize over the sweet, yeasty blueberry buns of my childhood, their blissful aroma filling every bakery throughout April and May.

Blueberries, first cousins to cranberries and bilberries, are either cultivated or picked from wild bushes. The latter tend to be smaller and have a rich, intense purple hue.

All blueberries are packed with a variety of micronutrients, including vitamins B6, C and K, along with manganese, antioxidant pigments and phytochemicals attributed to lowering cholesterol, enhancing memory, decreasing blood sugar levels and reducing risks of inflammation and certain cancers.

Studies have also shown that blueberries may lessen age-related conditions and cognitive deterioration in Alzheimer's patients. So spread some blueberry jam on your whole-wheat toast, drink some juice, toss them in your muffins, cereal and yogurt and rejoice.

Let's talk turkey with cranberries

This tarty first cousin to the blueberry with a special place on holiday tables has a later peak-growing season, from October to December, but freeze well. Cranberries have comparable health benefits to blueberries high in vitamins A, B, C and K; folic acid; copper; manganese; calcium; and a slew of other minerals along with antioxidants, phytonutrients and particularly proanthocyanidins with anti-adhesion properties.

This prevents and treats urinary tract infections, and inhibits gum disease and stomach ulcers. Drink cranberry juice straight up to pack the most potent anti-bacterial punch, blend them in muffins, breads or scones, chutneys, salads or raw trail mixes. If you don't like puckering up, add some agave syrup or honey to the recipes.

Açaí: the Brazilian bombshell

I was recently introduced to the açaí berry (pronounced ah-sigh-eeh, meaning "fruit that cries") and its plethora of health benefits, not to mention its divine flavor that blends the tastes of full-bodied purple berries with bittersweet chocolate.

This royal purple beauty packed with antioxidants; omega fatty acids; amino acids; fiber; vitamins A, B6, C and E; iron; proteins; and calcium is a Brazilian import from the açaí palm tree of the Amazon region.

It has been attributed to lowering cholesterol, improving digestion, boosting energy, bolstering the immune system, and staving off age-related ailments and symptoms. The açaí berry also scores 67 percent higher in antioxidant composition than pomegranate and more than 500 percent higher than the blueberry, making it a blockbuster berry linked to reduced risk of certain cancers, diabetes, inflammation, and heart and vascular diseases.

The açaí is 95 percent seed and only 5 percent skin. So once picked, the berries are extremely perishable and must be processed within a short post-harvest period, about 15 hours, before the precious pulp losses its nutritional integrity. Outside of Brazil, the açaí is only available as a juice fruit pulp or freeze-dried powder. It is a rich delight in smoothies, juice blends, yogurt and the traditional Brazilian frozen açaí bowls.

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