For centuries, blueberries (Vaccinnium) have been touted in folklore and medicine as a valuable functional food. Native Americans consumed the leaves, roots and fruits of the highbush blueberry Vaccinium corymbosum in potions designed to cure certain ailments. Europeans consumed the bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) fruit as part of their health and nutrition regiment. Here's a closer look at some specific health benefits supported by research.

Eyesight. For decades there has been an association between blueberries, especially bilberries (European blueberries) and eye health. Royal Air Force Pilots in World War II ate bilberries to help in night vision for their bombing runs. The berry's pigment contains a substance called anthocyanin, which is thought to help eyesight. Research in Japan by Osami Kajimoto demonstrated blueberries' prevention of weak eyesight and eye fatigue.1 In a recent North American Blueberry Council study conducted in Japan, more than 85% of consumers were aware of blueberries' eyesight benefits. In the past four years, dozens of blueberry products have been sold in Japan as eye potions.

Top antioxidant. In a USDA laboratory at Tuft's University in Boston, Mass., researchers found that blueberries ranked first in antioxidant activity compared to 40 other fruits and vegetables.2 Antioxidants help neutralize harmful byproducts of metabolism called “free radicals,” that can lead to cancer and other age-related diseases. Since the publication of this information in newspapers and magazines around the world, the blueberry industry has noticed much consumer interest in fresh and frozen blueberries. Some health and nutrition experts have advocated the daily consumption of one half cup of blueberries to receive the benefits of blueberry antioxidants.

Age-related diseases. Neuroscientists at another USDA lab at Tuft's University discovered that feeding blueberries to laboratory rats slowed age-related loss in their mental capacity, a finding with important implications to humans.3 The high antioxidant activity of blueberries probably played a role.

Urinary tract infections. Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have identified a compound in blueberries that promotes urinary tract health and reduces the risk of infection. It appears to work by preventing bacteria from adhering to the cells that line the walls of the urinary tract.4

Cholesterol. Blueberries may reduce the buildup of so called “bad” or LDL cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and stroke, according to scientists at the University of California at Davis. Antioxidants are believed to be the active component.5

Blueberry Origins and Forms

Quite simply, the blueberry is the fruit of the species of plant called Ericaceae. This is a relative of the Rhododendron plant. Blueberries or Vaccinium are one of the few native North American fruits. It is a small round blueberry with a star-shaped calyx on the top. Decades ago, blueberry plants were gathered from the forests of the Northeast USA and were cultivated as a food crop. Now, blueberries are grown in 38 states of the USA and in provinces of Canada.

Fresh blueberries are available during the harvest season that begins in Florida in April and ends in the far North in October. They are carefully hand-picked and placed in individual containers to preserve the freshness. Blueberries also are available year round in processed forms, including Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) blueberries. Blueberries can be ordered in bulk quantities such as 30 lb. cases. Dried blueberries, which are around 18% moisture are also available, and can be considered a good value: it takes around 3.5 lbs. to 6.5 lbs. of fruit to make one lb. of dried blueberries.

Each day, there are new investigations in the works concerning blueberries. A blue future for blueberries is likely to be bright indeed.