- Raw or cooked?
- Combined with what spices?
- As desserts or snacks?
Answer #1: Raw, of course, but you probably knew that.
Berries are a great source of polyphenols, a group of more than 8000 compounds arising from a common ancestor (the amino acid phenylalanine) and possessing all sorts of remarkable health promoting properties. Polyphenols help
- protect against oxidation and inflammation
- protect and repair DNA
- protect the heart (keep blood flowing smoothly) and brain (They cross the blood-brain barrier!)
- inhibit bad bacteria and promote production of good ones and
- fight cancer in various other ways (invoke immune system warriors, induce enzymes that help detox harmful compounds, alter erroneous cell signalling, keep damaged cells from multiplying and spreading, encourage cancer cell suicide)
Plants produce polyphenols to defend against stressors— UV radiation and pathogens–and the compounds thus concentrate in the plants’ outer layers.
But polyphenols are sensitive to heat, says Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University. That means cooking will harm them.
So what to do with all those individually quick frozen berries sitting in your freezer? Lila suggests a quick 15-20 second thaw in the microwave just to get the frost off or a rapid stir on the stove top–on low to medium heat. And drink the juices left behind, she says. Many polyphenols are water-soluble.
Answer # 2: Chai spices are the perfect complement.
Aren’t nature’s paints wonderful? Those rich red, blue and purple to blackish colors that berries develop in early fall come from anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that activates your body’s entire anti-oxidant response team.
Oxidation and Inflammation, the Dance of Anger
Let’s say that I tell you to f-off. You strike me back. I respond in kind, and before you know it our noses resemble a bucketful of anthocyanins.
That’s what author Harriet Lerner describes as “The Dance of Anger,” which can destroy relationships, both individual and cultural, as you well know. Scientists call that cycle a positive feedback loop—and a similarly destructive cycle can harm our cells.
As cells burn fuels (especially certain fuels) in the normal course of business, they create free radicals–molecules of oxygen that are missing an electron and must steal one from elsewhere. That causes oxidative damage (or oxidative stress) to cells.
Some dietary compounds–vitamins A, C, E, selenium, folate, for example– act as direct anti-oxidants, squelching free radicals by replacing an electron.
Others go even further and help turn off the tap, so to speak– by signalling DNA to turn on genes that protect cells from oxidative damage in part by producing enzymes to neutralize free radicals. By doing just that, anthocyanins (and other polyphenols) activate what scientists call your Nrf2 anti-oxidant response.
If your body’s anti-oxidant system is not up to snuff, however, oxidative stress will signal your immune system to think something’s wrong.
Inflammation is the immune system’s response to stressors, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Consider our bloody noses.The bruising and swelling we deserve is simply the immune system sending in soldiers to combat damage.
But when damage and thus inflammation is chronic, your immune system is always turned on, trying to repair and grow new cells. Chronic inflammation, many scientists believe, underlies much of modern disease, cancer included. In fact, cancer is ultimately just cells that feed off inflammatory signals and proliferate uncontrollably.
“Chai Ho” to the Rescue
Berries are to oxidation what chai (and other) spices are to inflammation. (Actually, it’s a bit more complex. Berries also fight inflammation, and foods that combat oxidation, by definition, will combat inflammation. But I’m getting too picky.)
Many spices, including cardamom, cloves and ginger, also help turn off the tap by regulating the cell signalling system that feeds inflammation. They help block the activation of Nuclear Factor-Kappa beta (NF-Kb), a set of molecules that tell your genes to tell your cells to produce all those inflammation-fighting enzymes.
You need a little Nf-kB to heal your bloodied nose from time to time; the danger comes when Nf-kB is chronically active. Cancer cells feed off the “grow” messages that Nf-kB provides.
Cloves and ginger are among the top spices for fighting inflammation. Cloves are also very high in direct anti-oxidant capacity, and ginger has been shown to protect DNA from damage. Cardamom and black pepper work synergistically with anthocyanins to help boost your immune system’s Natural Killer cells, which seek and destroy cancer cells. (Although the study cited looked at blueberries, its author says that the research is relevant to any foods rich in anthocyanins. Are you reading that closely?)
Answer #3: Trick question. It depends.
If you exercise strenuously, eating berries beforehand or afterwards may help fight the inflammation and oxidative stress caused by heavy duty exercise, according to Lila’s new research. Combine them with a few nuts, she says, because berries contain some healthy fat-soluble compounds, too.
But other research suggests that eating berries with meals or as dessert is also a wise strategy. Many polyphenols protect against damage from the inflammatory fats and blood sugar surges you get from meals.
Ready to stop reading and head to the kitchen? For more pizazz, add some vanilla and unsweetened almond milk (without carrageenan) to your anti-cancer berry bowl. You’ll be singing “Chai-Ho” with every mouthful. (Ok, the tune is Jai Ho, but who cares?)