Any food with potential to slow down the ageing process is hot property, and a string of them has hit the market recently. They’re not all highly processed ‘pharma-foods’ though – some of the most popular are simply the fruit and vegetables that have been with us for years. One of the latest superfoods to be rediscovered is the humble blueberry – and now scientists and food producers are working hard to grow the market, as Catherine Sleep reports.

The importance of regular fruit and vegetable consumption has climbed the agenda in recent years. In the UK, for example, the government recently launched a campaign to give children in deprived areas free fruit at school, and the Food Standards Agency recommends we eat at least five portions of fruit or veg every day. A general increase in public awareness of the benefits of healthy eating has also pushed fruit and vegetable sales, but some types of fruit are emerging as particularly beneficial.

Cranberries have risen to prominence over the last fifteen years, not least thanks to their curative properties for women staving off urinary tract infections. A sister berry in the vaccinium species (consisting of cranberries, bilberries, blueberries and lingonberries) is widely touted to be the next big berry – as scientists believe that the blueberry could have even more powerful health-giving, and in particular anti-ageing properties than the cranberry.

Avoiding oxidative stress

To understand the role that blueberries might play in maintaining good health, it is important to address the concept of oxidative stress. Vital to life, oxygen is reactive and all too readily converted to damaging elements such as DNA, lipids or enzymes. Contributing factors include environmental causes such as pollutants and radiation, as well as life style choices such as cigarette smoke and the consumption of certain foods. By far the largest factors, however, are simple metabolic processes such as respiration and immune response.

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Every cell in our bodies is constantly subject to what scientists call reactive oxygen species: the fundamental basis of ageing. The body needs to defend itself against oxidation, and additional protection from disease can come from fruit and vegetables. This protection has notably been attributed to the antioxidants that fruit and vegetables contain.

Some fruits and vegetables contain particularly high levels of antioxidants, and blueberries are high up on the chart, as seen below:


Scientists believe the particularly useful type of antioxidant in blueberries is phenolic phytonutrients and anthocyanins (from the Greek words meaning ‘blue’ and ‘plant’). Vacciniums are packed full of these helpful ingredients, which have a host of useful purposes, including protection from cancer and cardiovascular disease. They are also anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-oxidant, which has implications across all disease states.

Research on rats indicates that a diet including blueberries may improve motor skills and reverse the short-term memory loss that comes with ageing. USDA trials on animals showed improved navigational skills after a two-month diet of blueberry extract. Research has also linked blueberry anthocyanin with improved vision and the prevention of tired eyes.

Wild versus cultivated

Blueberries are available in two main types – wild and the more widely available cultivated variety. While both can form a useful component in a healthful diet, the wild type has been shown to have a phenolic content twice as high as its cultivated counterpart and an accordingly higher antioxidant capacity.

While research is ongoing, early indications are that processing (heating, freezing, preserving) has serious consequences for the healthfulness of blueberries. They are at their most beneficial when eaten fresh, but the vast majority of berries consumed in the UK are in processed foods – currently muffins and yoghurts. In North America, where blueberries are coming of age as a trend food, consumers have taken to putting a spoonful of berries on their breakfast cereal – although again these are mostly frozen, as the fresh blueberry season only lasts from August to September.

Bumper crops

Wild Blueberry Association of North AmericaThe Wild Blueberry Association of North America (WBANA) represents most of the blueberry processors in Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Maine. The average annual crop size is 125-130 million pounds, although bumper crops achieved in the last two years reached 180 million pounds, thus guaranteeing good supply to expanding markets such as the UK.

The WBANA promotes a logo and certification mark, and encourages processors and food manufacturers to licence the certification mark. Distributor J.O. Sims is involved in importing wild blueberries into the UK, and reports that retail packs of frozen product should be available in major multiples during the New Year. The future is… blue.

For more information please contact the WBANA at, or the North American Blueberry Council at