Florida blueberry season also has arrived. This heralds the start of U.S. blueberry production from now until the fall months. In the U.S., only the strawberry is more popular. Blueberries also are big business and an important agricultural crop.
Worldwide production in 2014 is estimated at 1.4 billion-with a “B”- pounds. Almost 560 million pounds of the 2012 crop came from the U.S. and British Columbia alone. Blueberry production represents about 18 percent of all berry crops grown in the United States and generated more than $640 million in 2010.
Since then, the love affair has grown torrid. Over the last decade, the average U.S. annual per capita consumption has more than doubled and in 2012 was a hearty 36.2 ounces per person. To keep up with the demand, states like Florida are poised to increase their yield from the 18 million pounds harvested in 2012 to more than 25 million pounds for 2013. And the blueberry is truly an all-American original, much more so than apples and apple pie.
While the apple is an import that originated in Western Asia, the blueberry is one of only a few berries native to North America that are commonly consumed.
I recently spent some time with Ken Patterson, one of Florida’s largest blueberry growers, to learn more about the berry and how it arrives on our shelves. During the winter months, blueberries available in stores are often imported from other countries, particularly South America. Growing, packaging and disclosure laws may be significantly different from those in the U.S., as may be harvesting techniques.
Although Ken grows blueberries specifically labeled organic and adhering to those constraints and regulations; none of the berries on his farm are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. They are all hand-picked for harvest over the course of several intense weeks. From March until May, Florida (and a few regions of southern Georgia) supply the vast majority of the fresh U.S. blueberry crop.
Among fruits and vegetables, blueberries rank among the most potent sources of antioxidants available. Antioxidants are compounds that act to help prevent DNA, cells and tissues from oxidative damage and free radicals. Free radicals play a role in normal human physiology and are important in controlling cardiovascular tone and in the inflammatory process.
However, high levels of free radicals are associated with levels of oxidative damage that can result in disruption of our normal DNA, cellular death, tissue and organ damage and failure. They are believed to play a role in the pathophysiology of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s dementia, diabetes and many other types of illness.
The free radical theory of aging posits that the aging process itself is a result of cumulative free radical exposure. Antioxidants like the vitamin C and other phytonutrients found in blueberries help the body’s natural mechanisms keep the free radicals from getting, well, too radical.
One serving of blueberries contains 25 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C. Blueberries also contain vitamin K, which is necessary for proper blood clotting and healthy bones. Blueberries also contain 25 percent of the RDA of manganese. Manganese is also important in maintaining proper bone and connective tissue health as well as important in the regulation of blood glucose and the proper metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.
Blueberries also are a rich source of fiber, which is essential for proper gastrointestinal function. All this benefit and a single cup is only about 85 calories.
Michael S. Fenster, M.D., an Interventional Cardiologist with Hernando Heart Clinic, is also a professional Chef. He recently signed with the Health and Wellness Channel to host a new show titled “Just What the Doctor Ordered” to be filmed for broadband and cable viewing accessible at HWC.com. For more information, visit www.whatscookingwithdoc.com and check out his book, “Eating Well, Living Better: A Grassroots Gourmet Guide to Good Health and Great Food” is available at Amazon.com and other fine book retailers.