You may have heard about the health benefits of wild blueberries—but are they for real? Our blogger dove into the science to find out.
Confession: I love wild blueberries. I grew up on the conventional kind, which are delicious, don’t get me wrong—love ya, Michigan—but the first time I tried fresh, wild Maine blueberries—at the Big E, after I moved to New England—I was blown away. I got hooked on those teeny tiny flavor-packed powerhouses, picking up a pint every week at the farmer’s market and putting them on everything: oatmeal, granola, ice cream, you name it.
And then I found out that they’re nutritional powerhouses, too. “But what’s the difference between wild and conventional?” said my colleague, Susie. Well! Let’s find out…
How are they different?
Yes, there are differences between wild blueberries and the conventional kind you often see at the grocery store (or grow in your backyard). First, wild blueberries are smaller, with a more intense taste. “It’s like regular blueberry mashed into a smaller package,” says Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD, nutrition advisor for the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.
Another difference: They’re, well, wild. Their growing range is limited: you can find the plants in craggy, rocky, glacial locations in Maine, Canada, and Alaska—and that’s it. That harsh landscape affects their taste—and nutritional benefits. Luckily, you don’t need to start heading north because these days, you can find frozen ones just about everywhere. And the best part: “They are just as nutritious as fresh wild blueberries,” says Broihier.
Why are they fundamentally different from conventional blueberries?
“Because they are wild, they are naturally stressed, much more than a cultivated berry would be. The blueberries have to work harder to protect themselves. A stressed plant creates its own defenses—in this case, phytonutrients, or natural plant chemicals,” Broihier says. That’s why there are greater concentrations of phytonutrients in a wild blueberry than in a cultivated one.
But what about the health benefits?
We mentioned phytonutrients — but have you heard of anthocyanins? Scientifically speaking, they’re a blue, red, or violet pigment found in plants. Wild blueberries have more of ‘em (33 percent more than conventional berries, to be exact), and they’re REALLY good for you—for example, they have antiobesity effects and help with insulin resistance.
Lots of studies have also shown that wild blueberries can improve cardiovascular health—one recent study showed they lowered blood pressure in healthy males aged 18 to 70 who consumed wild blueberry powder on a daily basis. Another showed they help speed wound healing (for real—they speed up the migration of cells that help to form new tissue!). They may also boost memory, and, Broihier says, one study is underway to test the effects of wild blueberries on Parkinson’s.
Interestingly, how anthocyanins are metabolized may be key to their health effects. “How our bodies break them down is a growing area of research,” Boihier says.
Are there any drawbacks?
I asked Boihier about sugar content—something I’m always concerned about because I’m trying to reduce my sugar consumption. Turns out, when it comes to fruits and veggies, the amount of sugar doesn’t matter: “The sugar content of wild blueberries is not high. Plus, sugars that are found naturally in foods are not typically of concern. Added sugar—sugar that is typically added to foods with little to no nutritional merit—should be avoided. Most people don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables, so discouraging fruit consumption—especially a fruit that is as nutritious as wild blueberries—is doing the consumer a disservice,” she says.
So that’s it! Go get you some (wild) blueberries—they’re delicious and guilt free. And if you’re ready, check out my followup post: Healthy & Delicious Wild Blueberry Recipes!