Over the holiday weekend, I spent a few days Up North in a Cabin by a Lake as a fortunate Minnesotan able to escape the urban zoo for a while with friends. Full of northwoods-style fun with long walks, swims and canoe paddling, it also turned out to be a ripe weekend to forage for wild berries. Mostly I was keeping an eye out for ripe wild raspberries to pop in my mouth as I walked along the woodland road, but out by the edge of the woods I saw a different color, much closer to the ground: blue!
I have eaten so many foods, grown and picked all kinds of varieties as well in many places in the world, but I have never seen a blueberry growing wild on a little bush before. I was charmed, excited and amazed – these little fruits, warmed from the sun, bursting with tart-sweet flavor and so wonderfully colorful.
It was the blueberries that got me thinking about color in our food, and how lucky we are that there are still places on earth to find small wonders of incredible wild fruits. It’s more than just the fruit, though – the earth is providing us with a guidepost for the healthiest foods to eat.
It’s all in the color. You don’t have to know the first thing about which fruits or vegetables are the best choices for a healthy diet – you just have to let the color be your guide. Berries, which are abundant, available from local sources right now, and at the peak of their flavor, are all superstars in the fruit world. Pale and timid? Definitely not – berries are deeply colored in shades of red, magenta, purple, and blue – promising juicy, flavorful and nutrient-packed goodness.
Around Minnesota in summer, we have strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or black raspberries, blueberries and thimbleberries – and all of them are especially high in Vitamin C, fiber, manganese and perhaps most importantly, ellagic acid. Ellagic acid is part of the phenol classified phytochemical group called flavonoids, which are responsible for those brightly colored plant pigments as well as many medicinal properties of foods, and have been shown to have a broad and effective range of antioxident activity because of their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiallergic and anticancer properties. Ellagic acid, specifically, has especially high anticancer activity against pollutants and toxic chemicals.
Ultimately the key is to eat a rainbow assortment of foods, and to try to eat a wide variety of these ellagic acid-rich foods throughout the season from different fruits. Among our local fruits where ellagic acid is found, raspberries top the charts, followed by blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries and later this year, apples and cranberries.
It’s always better to get a super compound from its original source, and to provide your body with as many of them as possible rather than relying on a supplement in pill or additive form. Next to fresh in season, frozen berries are the best bet for the highest antioxident content for out of season choices, with freeze-dried coming in second – even over shipped-in berries – because they were picked at the height of freshness and preserved immediately for storage.
So you don’t really have to remember that it’s the flavonoids that are the source of those bright colors, you just have to remember that bright colors equal good things for your body. If we allow our eye to be witness to the beauty and promise of juicy, sweet flavors, then we have let instinct and the earth guide us to what is really good and what we really need to heal, repair, and keep us healthy every day.
Just like that little bit of blue out of the corner of my eye, hiding under some shiny green leaves – protected enough to be able to ripen, but just tempting enough to be discovered – and eaten!