Many of these 101 articles cover ingredients whose cultivation and usage goes back hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. This time, however, we will look at a much more recent fruit, whose current incarnation is far more modern than you might have imagined: the blueberry.
Though it is quite a recent cultivation, the blueberry is still considered primary amongst superfoods, and for excellent reasons. As I shall go into below, the blueberry’s nutritional profile is considered fantastic by foodies and nutritionists alike.
Claims abound that regularly including this humble berry into your diet should yield great health benefits. From their delivery of cancer preventative, antioxidant phytonutrients through to mind improving compounds, the immediate, positive affect on our lives that blueberries can give have been touted to great fanfare in recent years.
But, do blueberries deserve their growing reputation?
I will answer this question and many more in this, my Blueberry 101.
What are blueberries?
Before we get into the health benefits of blueberries mentioned above, let’s do a little groundwork first.
The blueberry’s history
Blueberry bushes are perennially flowering plants which yield, as you may have guessed, blue (or purplish blue) berries. The bushes are classified under the genus Vaccinium – this genus also includes the blueberry’s cousins, cranberries, bilberries, and huckleberries.
Blueberries are eaten widely across the globe today, but their history as a cultivated fruit is remarkably short. As a crop, their existence dates only to the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the 1910s, a farmer’s daughter in New Jersey worked in conjunction with a botanist to breed the blueberries that we know and love today. Together, they harvested their first crop in 1916, making them just a little over a century old – there are people alive today who are older than the blueberry fruit’s existence!
The blueberry then made its way across the Atlantic, reaching mainland Europe during the 1930s. They have since spread around the world as their popularity has continued to rise.
About the blueberry
Blueberry bushes are usually prostrate shrubs. They can vary in size from around four inches to four metres in height. There are, broadly speaking, two types of blueberry bush (I’ll go into more detail below.)
In commercial production, these are those bushes known as ‘low bush blueberries’, which produce small, pea sized berries that grow on a low level, and ‘high bush blueberries’ which offer larger berries, and are taller cultivated plants.
Blueberry bush leaves can be either evergreen or deciduous, and grow from ovate to lanceolate, depending on the variety. The flowers are bell shaped, with petals coloured from white, through pale pink to a fuller red.
Blueberries themselves are, of course, berries. They grow pale green at first, before turning a purplish red. Finally, they darken when ripe to the blue hue from which they get their name. They have a sweet, pleasant taste when they are mature, often with subtle acidic notes.
Blueberry bushes typically yield in the middle of the growing season. Local conditions, such as altitude and latitude, will affect fruiting times. The peak of the crop, in the northern hemisphere at least, usually falls anywhere between May and August.
Blueberry hot spots
Many commercially sold species bearing common English names are from North America, where the blueberry began its story.
The genus Vaccinium has a mostly circumpolar distribution. Species are mostly present in North America, Europe, and Asia. However, many North American native species are also grown commercially in Southern Hemisphere countries such as New Zealand and Australia, alongside several South American countries – most notably Chile.
There are several other wild shrubs within the genus Vaccinium which also produce commonly eaten blueberry fruits. These include the European Vaccinium myrtillus alongside other bilberries – in many languages, these bear names that translate back into English as ‘blueberry.’
Blueberry bush varieties
Five main blueberry varieties are grown commercially in North America. These are:
- Low bush
- Northern high bush
- Southern high bush
- Half high
Low bush blueberry varieties are shorter, truer bushes than their high bush counterparts – as the name suggests. They typically grow to less than 1 and a half feet high. They will produce a higher yield of fruit when planted alongside other cultivars.
These varieties often require little pruning, especially in comparison to their cousins. However, it is generally recommended practice to cut them back to the ground every couple of years.
Low bush varieties, though used less often in commercial fruit farming, are often used in ornamental gardening. Well known ornamental bush types include Top Hat and Ruby.
Northern high bush blueberry varieties are the most commonly cultivated types of blueberry grown globally. They are more resistant to disease compared with other blueberry varieties, and high bush cultivars are self-fertile, making them a safe bet in commercial terms.
Northern high bush varieties of blueberry bush are native to the eastern United States. Bushes tend to grow to between 5 to 9 feet high. A list of their most common cultivars includes:
- Blue crop
- Blue gold
- Blue ray
- Hardy blue
Southern high bush blueberry bush varieties are hybrids of Vaccinium corymbosum and the Floridian native Vaccinium darrowji. These types of bush can grow to between 6 and 8 feet in height.
The southern low bush was created in order to allow for berry yields in areas more prone to warmer winters, as they require less chilling time in which to break bud and flower.
Southern high bush varieties blossom in the late winter and are prone to frost damage, making them more ideally suited to warmer climates, or those places with milder winters. Some southern high bush cultivars are:
- Golf coast
- Ozark blue
- Sharp blue
- Sunshine Blue
Rabbiteye blueberry bush varieties are also native to the southern United States. They grow between 6-10 feet high and were cultivated in order to flourish in areas with longer, hot summers. They are also quite susceptible to winter damage in the cold, and so do best in warmer climates. Popular cultivars include:
- Powder blue
Half high blueberry bush varieties round out our list. They are, as the name might suggest, the middle ground between the high and low bush varieties: they are a cross between the two and usually grow to between 3-4 feet high.
Half high blueberry bushes tolerate lower temperatures than their southern cousins. They are also apt for container growing and need less pruning than typical high brush varieties. Some of the more popular varieties you might find include:
- Blue gold
- North country
- North sky
My top facts about blueberries
So far, we’ve already learned a lot about blueberries and the different varieties of bush available. We have also taken a brief look at their history.
However, there are lots more interesting facts regarding these little gems, and I’ve compiled a list of a few favorite blueberry facts for you here:
- Just one handful of blueberries will contain a mere forty four calories. However, it will give you two grams of dietary fibre and a full 10% of your daily recommended content of vitamin C. These little berries are real heavy hitters.
- Blueberries rank top of the list in antioxidant health benefits (more on this below).
- Blueberries are one of the only types of food you will find that are naturally coloured blue. Anthocyanin, the pigment that gives blueberries their distinct colour, is the same compound from which blueberries’ health benefits are garnered.
- Whilst commercial blueberries as we know them are very new, people have been eating their cousins, such as European bilberries and huckleberries, for over thirteen millennia!
- North American indigenous people referred to the blueberry’s precursors as ‘star fruits,’ due to the five-pointed star shape formed at the berry’s blossom end.
- An average blueberry bush can produce as many as 6,000 blueberries in a single year.
- You should only wash blueberries right before you eat them. The ‘bloom’ – the silvered sheen found on blueberries’ skin – is a naturally occurring compound. It helps to protect the fruit and is best left on them until the last moment.
- As I shall go into in more detail below, regular blueberry consumption has been linked to many health benefits. These include a reduced risk of cancer due to their free-radical fighting antioxidants, as well as increased insulin response and a reversal of age-related memory decline.
As I mentioned above, blueberries contain anthocyanin. This is a powerful antioxidant and it gives the fruit their distinctive colour. (1)
Anthocyanin provides properties which fight inflammation and protect the body’s cells, thereby reducing any damage done by free radicals. As I will go into in more in detail in a minute, anthocyanin is a fantastic addition in any nutritional plan.
As well as this, blueberries contain very few calories compared to the health benefits they kick out. One cup (about 150 grams) of blueberries will give you an average of:
- 85 calories
- 0.5 g fat
- 21 g carbohydrates
- 3.6 g fibre
- 15 g sugar
- 1.1 g protein
- 114 mg potassium
- 24% DV vitamin C
- 5% DV vitamin B6
- 0.9 % DV calcium
- 2.25 % DV magnesium
- 2.25 % DV folate
- 35.8 % DV vitamin K
Health benefits of blueberries
This is the big one – these little berries are not merely abundant and tasty but, as I’ve hinted at so far, have been linked to some really quite remarkable health benefits. They have been shown to protect against heart disease and cancer, and can also help maintain bone strength, mental health, and healthy blood pressure.
The flavonoid anthocyanin, mentioned above, is key both to the berries’ colors and to many of the healthy properties. Flavonoids are plant compounds which give significant antioxidant effects to the body.
Although more research is needed, blueberries have been linked to various different elements of healthy living. Here are some of the top benefits to be had from including them in your diet or supplement regime:
Maintenance of healthy bones
Blueberries contain iron, phosphorous, manganese, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin K. Each of these vitamins and minerals is a component of bone. Adequate intake of these can contribute to building and maintaining healthy bone structure and strength.
Additionally, iron and zinc are both crucial in the maintenance of strength and elasticity of bones and joints. A lack of dietary vitamin K has also been linked to a higher risk of bone fracture. Adequate vitamin K intake can improve calcium absorption and may ultimately lead to a reduction in calcium loss. (2)
Maintaining skin health
Collagen is vital for your skin: it forms the skin’s support system, in effect. It works to help in the prevention of skin damage caused by the sun and environmental factors such as smoke and pollution.
Collagen is heavily reliant on dietary vitamin C, and one cup of blueberries provides nearly a quarter of the recommended daily dosage of vitamin C, as mentioned above.
Lowering blood pressure
Keeping sodium (read salt) levels low in the body is one of the most crucial elements in fighting high blood pressure. For a start, blueberries are free of sodium.
In addition to this lack, however, blueberries do contain: potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
Some studies have shown that diets low in these minerals lean towards an association with high blood pressure. Adequate dietary intake of these minerals, conversely, has been suggested as a way in which to keep blood pressure low. (3, 4)
However, we mustn’t run away with this idea. Other studies counteract these findings, suggesting little causal link between daily blueberry consumption and blood pressure levels. (5)
As ever, more research is needed.
The antioxidant nature of blueberries may help to protect the body’s cells against damage from free radicals.
Research also suggests that antioxidants have an inhibiting effect on tumour growth. Antioxidants are also thought to decrease inflammation in the body, as well as fighting, warding off, or slowing down cancers of the lung, mouth, pharynx, pancreas, prostate, and colon, among others.
Blueberries are also rich in folate. Folate is a key factor in both DNA synthesis and repair, helping to prevent cancer cell formation due to mutations within the DNA itself. (6)
Protecting against heart disease
There are various factors pertaining to blueberries which mix to support heart health. Most notably, the fiber, potassium, folate, Vitamins C, and B6, and phytonutrient content of blueberries are all vital in supporting your heart’s healthy functioning.
The absence of cholesterol is also a beneficial factor, allowing you to have a sweet treat without having to worry about the ramifications to your cardiovascular system. High fiber contents aid in this regard: fiber helps to reduce the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, thus decreasing the risk of heart disease.
Vitamin B6 and folate combine to prevent the build up of the compound homocysteine. Excessive homocysteine levels in the body can damage blood vessels, leading to heart issues.
Studies have found that people with type 1 diabetes who consume diets high in dietary fiber have low blood glucose levels, and that people with type 2 diabetes who consume the same may improve their blood sugar, lipid, and insulin levels.
As I mentioned above, just one cup of blueberries contributes 3.6 grams (g) of fiber, suggesting that dietary blueberry consumption should be a priority for diabetics.
In addition, a cohort study conducted in 2013 suggested that consuming three servings per week of blueberries, grapes, raisins, apples, or pears reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 7 percent. (7)
Improving mental health
Studies have connected the consumption of blueberries to a slowing down of cognitive decline in older women, alongside showing that blueberries can actively help to improve short term memory function and motor coordination. (8)
Healthy digestion and weight loss aid
Blueberries have been shown to aid in constipation prevention, helping consumers to maintain regularity in their digestive habits. The fiber content in blueberries is responsible for this, as dietary fiber helps to bulk out stools.
Dietary fiber is also commonly appreciated as a weight loss tool. Its use as a bulking agent in the digestive process also enables a feeling of fullness: satiation increases, thus decreasing overall appetite and food consumption.
Add this to their low impact caloric impact and you will soon see that blueberries are fantastic for those on a weight loss diet.
A blueberry buyer’s guide
So, by now we should have a good understanding of what blueberries are, and of what they do. But, as consumers, we also need to know what we are to look for if we are to get the best out of this humble little superfood.
I’ve got you covered here, too, with my blueberry buyer’s guide.
What to look for
Naturally enough, when you are looking for blueberries, you will want to be looking for their distinctive, deep blue colouring.
When buying a punnet of blueberries, try shaking it before going to the check out. If the berries move, they should be OK. If they don’t however, perhaps pass them over for a different punnet. Lack of movement could mean that some of the berries are either mouldy or crushed.
Buy organic, if you can. Blueberries contain a high level of pesticides – conventional strains can contain up to 42 types of pesticide chemicals! Blueberries have thin skins, which allows chemicals from the soil to enter into the fruit’s flesh.
Buying organic is usually the safer option regardless of the ingredient, but this is definitely true of blueberries.
Buy them wild, if you can.
Wild blueberries will be richer in phytonutrients. However, they can be on the pricier side: if you want a more budget friendly choice, farmed blueberries will do just fine.
Ways to consume blueberries
Aside from the fresh berries themselves, there are a few other buying options to be used as convenience dictates. They are available either frozen or dried, so that they last longer and can be enjoyed whenever you want or need them.
The antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found in blueberries will be mostly preserved in these varieties, giving you much of the health kick offered by fresh berries. Frozen blueberries are also often more affordable than fresh ones, so they will be much kinder on your pocket.
Blueberry juices and jams are also a favourite, to be found in most larger shops and supermarkets. They can be quite high in antioxidants and minerals, giving you some of the benefit of the originals. However, remember to bear in mind that jams and juices are very high in sugar – they should only ever be consumed sparingly. Treat them as a treat.
Finally, powdered blueberry and blueberry supplements are also available. Though they won’t pack as much of a nutritional punch as fresh or frozen berries, they are very convenient and can be quite cost effective.
If you are looking to liven up your favourite smoothie or shake with some powdered blueberry, or looking to catch some tablets on the run, you will still benefit at least in part from their natural goodness.
However, the whole food will always be better than a supplement version, no matter what food you are looking at. Supplements are quick and easy but do remember to weigh this up against the more complete nutritional profile to be found in the real deal – blueberries are no exception to this rule!
Blueberries are very much at home in sweet dishes: their tart sweetness and low glycemic nature combine to add a little health kick to desserts that can otherwise be lacking.
Some of my favourite recipes are below: a couple are truly healthy, a couple are truly indulgent, but all have one thing in common – they show blueberries off to their fullest.
Vegan blueberry crumble
Let’s start of with a bit of comfort food in the form of this lovely vegan blueberry crumble from Vibrant Plate, a perfect dish for those long, late summer evenings.
Made with blueberries, of course, alongside a lightly sweetened, crunchy topping, this is a perfect, easy to make treat.
Blueberry date smoothie bowl
According to Fit Foodie Finds, smoothies are best eaten with a spoon. If this recipe for a blueberry and date smoothie is anything to go by, nobody’s arguing.
It’s a thick and creamy dish, almost made for personalisation: make it as a base and then add all your favourite things for a great on the go dish, or for a healthy, nutritious breakfast at home.
French toast rolls
OK, so now we’re getting a little bit more luxurious, with these vegan blueberry French toast rolls.
These delights are warming, a little naughty, and great to serve as a refreshing, light breakfast or dessert. The always delightful combination of blueberry and lemon is taken in a different direction here – they really are worth a try.
Almond, lemon and blueberry pie bars
Our final offering is from Minimalist Baker: almond, lemon and blueberry pie bars.
They are simple, easy to make, and require just a few, flexible ingredients, yet they also show off the tart sweetness in which blueberries excel. Make these little bars for ready snacks on busier days and use up any leftover blueberries you might have hanging around.
Are there any downsides to blueberries?
So far, I have been making blueberries sound fantastic, talking up their health giving qualities, their specific nutritional benefits, and offering lovely recipes, too – and all with good reason. They really are a fantastic addition to your diet.
That being said, as with most things, there are a few things worthy of consideration as an addendum to any praise. The following are worth looking out for when considering adding blueberries into your current diet or supplement regime:
They can affect your blood sugar levels
I mentioned this above, as a positive, especially for those suffering with diabetes types I and II.
Blueberries’ low glycemic index is another reason to stock up on them, as it aids in keeping blood sugar low. However, these qualities can be dangerous for those who have diabetes, since it means that blueberries can lower their blood sugar to dangerous levels.
If you have either type of diabetes, it is always best to consult with your healthcare provider if you plan to make blueberries a major part of your diet, or if you’re planning to add blueberry-based supplements to your current supplement regime.
Blueberries can interfere with surgery
This is also down to blueberries’ low glycemic index. Since they have a depressing effect on your blood sugar levels, consumption of blueberries can make it difficult to control blood glucose, both before and after surgery.
Experts recommend avoiding eating blueberries, or taking any blueberry supplements, at least two weeks before undergoing surgery. Once more, it is always best to consult your healthcare provider in such circumstances.
Organic really is important
The following will not be a problem if, as I cautioned above, you are already buying organic blueberries, or products derived from organic blueberries. But if you’re foregoing organic when buying your blueberries, you might be spelling trouble for yourself.
As I also mentioned above, there can be up to 42 types of pesticides found in blueberries, due to their thin skin making absorption easy. Alongside their naturally good nutritional values, commercially grown, non organic blueberries will therefore be delivering all that nastiness into your body.
Storing blueberries tips
Blueberries are easy enough to store, if you know how.
They need to be kept at a low humidity. As I mentioned above, it is always best to leave blueberries unwashed up to the last moment because of their bloom. This will help them to stay much fresher for much longer.
When you get your blueberries home from the shops, check each one quickly for stems. Remove and throw away any soft or cracked blueberries, as these will go off more quickly than the rest.
Be gentle with them! Any roughness as you handle them might crack them. This will break the bloom and allow moisture into the flesh, helping them to go off a lot more quickly – they can go moldy this way, too, if you’re not careful.
Really fresh blueberries should last up to two weeks in a refrigerator.
Can you freeze blueberries?
Blueberries are easy enough to freeze and, once frozen, they will keep up to a year.
When you are freezing your blueberries, first sort them and remove any stems. Then spread the berries onto a paper lined baking sheet or similar and freeze overnight.
Once they are frozen, transfer your blueberries to an airtight container for longer term storage.
Freezing blueberries is frequently discussed by experts. It is often said that the freezing process can diminish the potency of the blueberry’s health benefits. One study showed that over the course of 6 months in storage, the anthocyanin degraded by 59 percent. (9)
This has yet to be confirmed, though: other sources take different stances on whether freezing blueberries reduces their impact on health.
However, as we regularly remind you here at HHV, it is always best to buy and eat fresh, organic, whole foods whenever possible. Everything else will be a compromise, to a greater or lesser degree.
Drying your blueberries
Another great way in which to store your blueberries whilst maintaining a fair portion of their nutritional potency is by drying them.
You can dry your blueberries at home. Simply blanch them to crack their skins, then dry them in the oven at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) for three to four hours. You could also use a food dehydrator, if you have one at home.
You will need to keep an eye on them during the drying process: the oven door needs to be left ever so slightly open and they will need to be turned over from time to time.
Can you grow blueberries at home?
Given the right conditions, it is easy enough to grow your own blueberries from home. Please read on to learn all about how to ensure a bumper stock of home grown, tasty, organic goodness:
How to plant your blueberry bushes
- First, you will need to pick the right spot. Blueberry bushes tend to prefer sunny, sheltered environments. Whilst they can tolerate the shade, you will get far better results from letting them soak up the sunlight.
- Blueberries will also do best in acidic soil. Ideally, you will want a soil pH of between 4 and 5. You can acidify your soil easily enough by mixing in a small amount of granulated sulphur, bit by bit, until the pH levels are right. Do this several months before planting.
- Blueberry bushes have shallow roots. Because of this, you will need a soil that holds moisture, yet one that also drains easily and doesn’t get over saturated. Mix organic matter into the soil before you plant your blueberry bushes.
- Blueberry bushes should be planted in the early spring – the earlier, the better. If they are available from your local nursery, try to get plants that are between 1 and 3 years old. If you don’t know what type of bush you want to grow, simply consult the top of this article, or ask advice at your nursery.
- When your soil is ready, dig holes that are about 20 inches deep and 18 inches wide. This should be both about twice as wide and twice as deep as the roots of the plant themselves. Space the bushes about 5 to 6 feet apart in a row, with about 8 to 10 feet between rows.
- Set the bushes in their holes with their roots splayed out and pack the hole tightly with plenty of rich soil. Do not plant the bush any deeper than it grew in the pot.
- You will want to apply fertilizer about one month after planting – not at the time of planting. Apply about 15 grams of 10-10-10 fertilizer in a wide circle around the plant, about 10 inches from the crown.
- Then, come the summer months, simply harvest the literal fruits of your labor (see below for more information on when to do this) and enjoy.
Blueberries grown in a container
Blueberries can be grown in containers; in fact, blueberries grown in containers are in many ways easier to deal with than bushes grown in beds. They are more easily protected from birds and other animals, are less prone to disease, are easier to harvest and, of course, are transportable when needed.
To grow blueberries in a container:
- Select a large container and make sure it has proper drainage holes: if in doubt, cut your own drainage holes.
- As blueberry bushes thrive in acidic soil, pick an appropriate mix. Other plants that like acidic conditions include azaleas and rhododendrons, so simply buy a mix suited to these from your local nursery.
- Plant the bush in the container, following the same advice (above) for planting in beds and water well.
- Put some mulch on top of the soil, place the pot in a position where it will get plenty of sunlight.
- Remember to keep the soil moist, and if you’re working in a colder, northern climate, either keep the plant covered, or place the pot in a protected area, throughout the winter months.
Harvesting your blueberries
Your blueberries will generally be ready for harvest around late July to mid-August, though this can of course vary depending on environmental factors.
When you want to harvest, check on your berries. If they are yet to turn blue, be patient. When they are ready, blueberries should be nearly falling off the branches.
If you plant a two to three year old bush, you can expect it to begin bearing fruit within another one to two years. The fullest yields usually come after about six years.
And that’s it for my Blueberry 101.
My hope is that this article has covered everything you need to know about blueberries, from why to eat them, how to eat them, and how to grow them yourself – with a little history thrown in for good measure.
Their status as a superfood is well earned, due to their highly antioxidant nature, alongside the myriad other nutritional boosts they bring to any diet.
Blueberries are also a delicious addition to your diet, with many beautiful recipes and new ways of using them coming out all the time. I’ve included some of my favourite recipes in this article, but you will always be able to adapt your own and look elsewhere for more inspiration.
However you decide to incorporate blueberries into your diet or supplement regime, why don’t you let us know what works best for you? Share your thoughts and recipes in the comment section below.
About The Author:
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.
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