The World of Food: Berries

By Julia Maish |

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                            Blueberries

Blueberries

If you ventured outdoors at all last weekend here in Chicago, you know that summer is most definitely upon us. From a culinary perspective, that means you will find a colorful cornucopia of fresh seasonal fruits at the grocery or your local farmers market. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated?

Berries.

We sprinkle them over ice cream; bake them into pies, tarts, crumbles, muffins, and cobblers; throw them on our breakfast cereal; slice and toss them in our salads; make them into jam; and blend them into our yogurts and smoothies. Or, we just eat them, and in doing so, derive a variety of health benefits. Many of the berries we know and love have been around in some form since dinosaurs walked the earth. But you might be surprised to learn that some fruits that we assume to be berries actually are not, at least from a botanical standpoint (in spite of the “berry” that is part of some of their names). And there are numerous fruits – some that we have always considered to be vegetables – that technically are berries. Why is that, exactly?

Quick definition: for a food to be classified as a true berry, it must originate from the ovary of a single flower, and it must have a soft, somewhat pulpy center with seeds on the inside, but not a stone or a pit, (which rules out peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, mangoes, and other similar fruits, which are part of the drupe group – yes, that rhymes). By that definition, the following fall into the category of berries…

Blueberries
Currants (black and red)
Tomatoes
Eggplants
Chili peppers
Bananas (yes, it has very small seeds)
Kiwis
Grapes
Pumpkins
Watermelons
Cucumbers
Lingonberries and cloudberries (grown mostly in the wild)

…but the following are NOT berries, but aggregate fruits (formed from multiple ovaries of the same flower):
Strawberries (its seeds are actually called achene and are considered to be miniscule fruits of their own, plus they exist on the outside of the fruit)
Blackberries
Raspberries

Also, there are some berries that are not edible and are in fact poisonous, such as pokeweed and nightshade. And there are others that are lethal when they are unripe, but fine to eat once they ripen, such as elderberries and red and white mulberries. That said, if you can manage to avoid being poisoned, berries are a great way to add fiber, vitamin C, flavonoids, and antioxidants (great for boosting your brain power and staving off heart disease, several forms of cancer, arthritis, stomach issues, inflammation, asthma, cataracts, and other maladies) to your diet. A tip regarding antioxidants: organic berries have more of them.

Also, strawberries, due to the salicylates they share in common with aspirin, can also reduce the frequency of headaches, if you’re prone to them. And luckily, extreme heat and cold have no effect on berries’ nutritional efficacy, so you can cook them or freeze them and they will be just as effective as the fresh variety – maybe even more so! Researchers at South Dakota State University recently discovered that freezing berries, due to the ice crystals that form on them, may make their antioxidants easier for the body to absorb. So stock up during the season and put them by for later!

A few other berry facts:

Batology is the study of blackberries. (Bet you thought it concerned something else.)

Raspberries are not necessarily red – there are also gold, yellow, purple, and black varieties, among others. One surprising fruit that IS red: unripe blackberries – they change color as they age.

If you want to use a truly natural purple dye for fabric, try blueberries.

Gooseberries make a great hair treatment, as they are said to enhance hair color, promote shine, and strengthen the roots. White mulberry trees were originally brought to America to cultivate silkworms for…you know, silk. Bilberries, originating from Scandinavia, have been believed to sharpen a person’s eyesight, especially night vision. The story goes that pilots during World War II ate a lot of bilberry jam for this purpose. (No word on whether it worked, but at least they had something to put on toast.)

If you happen to find a double strawberry, here’s an old legend: break it in half, share it with someone, and you and that person will fall in love. (Just be careful whom you choose!)

Hey, those fun-loving Belgians have a whole museum dedicated to strawberries! They must be on to something.