Evidence suggests that eating berries has benefits for the brain

I eat a reasonably varied diet, I think, but there are a few ‘stock items’ that recur in my overall food intake. One example of this is a commonly-eaten breakfast of Greek (10 per cent fat) yoghurt, berries and nuts. The last couple of mornings I’ve had the pleasure of some freshly shelled walnuts. And while I sometimes use fresh berries, I rely for most of the year on frozen mixed berries that I buy in the local supermarket. The berries, which include blackberries and redcurrants, can be a little sharp on the tongue, so I indulge myself with a little drizzle of honey too – just enough to take the edge off.

This breakfast ticks a number of boxes for me. Firstly, and importantly, it’s relatively low-carb. And it’s certainly a lot lower-carb than normal breakfast fodder such as toast and cereal. It is also a quite nutritionally varied ensemble: the yoghurt, berries and nuts all have relatively distinct nutritional attributes I think, and together form something that is relatively complete from a nutritional perspective.

I also like the facts that it’s super-quick to prepare and, to me anyway, enjoyable to eat. An added and important bonus is that even a relatively small bowl of this stuff will generally last me (and others) well into the morning. This relatively simple breakfast has real staying power, which is something to do, I suspect, with it’s relatively tempered release of sugar into the bloodstream, coupled with a decent content of both protein and fat.

One other reason for choosing this particular breakfast has to do with one if its ingredients – the berries. I don’t eat an awful lot of fruit. Some years ago I decided to do a bit of a ‘juice detox’ over a weekend and ended up hungry and a few pounds heavier. I have since realised that fruit does not suit my metabolism particularly well, which I suspect has something to do with the fact that it’s generally loaded with sugar. I do eat quite a lot of (non-starchy) veg though.

Berries are relatively low-carb, but also quite rich in nutrients, particularly what are known as ‘polyphenols’. Polyphenols are known to have antioxidant capacity, which means they can help neutralise ‘free radicals’ – damaging, destructive chemical entities linked with disease. The antioxidant action of foods can be measured and expressed as something known as the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity). Below, are some ORAC values of generally-decent foods. You’ll see that the ORAC values for berries are generally high.

I was interested to read about some research today here which suggests that part of the body polyphenols might have particular benefit for is the brain. This research, presented earlier this week at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Association, has found that berry polyphenols help maintain and normalise the function of cells in the brain called ‘microglia’.

One of the functions of these cells is to remove and recycle biochemical debri that if left to build up in the brain, might damage it and interfere with brain function. As we age, the microglia can become increasingly less efficient at doing their job, and this can increase the risk of degeneration in the structure and function of the brain. From the report of this study it seems as though berry polyphenols help to maintain the function of microglia in terms of their ‘housekeeping’ function.

By the looks of things, this study was done on rat brain cells cultured in the lab which is quite far removed from human nutrition in the real world. However, we do have other evidence which shows that the feeding of rats with berry extracts has the ability to improve motor function and cognitive function, including memory [1].

We just don’t know if eating berries has similar brain-preserving properties in humans. But their relatively low-sugar and highly-nutritious nature means that I’ll continue to use them as a stock item at breakfast whenever possible.


1. Joseph JA, et al. Reversals of age-related declines in neuronal signal transduction, cognitive, and motor behavioral deficits with blueberry, spinach, or strawberry dietary supplementation. J Neurosci 1999;19:8114–8121

10 Responses to Evidence suggests that eating berries has benefits for the brain

  1. dennis 25 August 2010 at 11:26 pm #

    See my comment on the last blog – Green vegetables etc – which is just as relevant here

  2. Reijo Laatikainen 26 August 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Thanks for explaining the mechanism behind! Berries are undervalued and overwhelmed by fads like goji which may not be better than choke berry, buchthorn or blue berry. Some countries have forests full of berries and still people are more willing to consume exotic fruit. There is room for berry advocacy.

    There is some human evidence showing that berries may affect cognition (weak though).

    From the table you present lacks coffee which has very high antioxidant capacity and has been connected to improved (or at least maintained) cognition. Very extensive list (+3 100 items) on antioxidant capacity of different foods can be found. http://bit.ly/besdIf

  3. Ani 26 August 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    There is a study that investigated the consumption of wild blueberry juice and memory function. After twelve weeks individuals consuming the blueberry juice had improved memory as well as a trend toward reduced depressive symptoms when compared to a control group of individuals who did not consume blueberry juice. The authors concluded that “The findings of this preliminary study suggest that moderate-term blueberry supplementation can confer neurocognitive [brain/memory] benefit and establish a basis for more comprehensive human trials to study preventive potential and neuronal mechanisms” “These preliminary memory findings are encouraging and suggest that consistent supplementation with blueberries may offer an approach to forestall or mitigate neurodegeneration,”

    (1) D. Shidler et al. 2010. Blueberry Supplementation Improves Memory in Older Adults. J. Agric. Food Chem. Publication Date (Web): January 4, 2010. DOI: 10.1021/jf9029332

  4. dennis 27 August 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    However you measure it, ORAC, FRAP, level of vitamins etc., fresh fruits and vegetables have much higher scores than any other types of human food. This is because they are the most ordered , lowest entropy of foods (see my comment on Green vegetables blog)- nearest to the sun. Also there is no point in obesessing on one particular measure – much better to eat a wide range of different fruits and vegetables rather than focus on just a few.

    This and the previous post (Green vegetables …) demonstrate that fresh fruit and vegetables (particlarly green vegetables and lower sugar fruit) should form the mainstay of the human diet – at least 10 portions a day.

  5. Me 27 August 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    Does this apply to currants, raisins and sultanas?

  6. Diana Moody 1 September 2010 at 1:44 am #

    I want to know if the bag of frozen “cultured” blueberries I get at Costco are in any way different or less than other blueberries. I don’t know what the cultured means. They are good tasty blueberries and I can’t afford to buy organic. Also, does anyone know if making a smoothie vs chewing the berries compromises the food value at all. I eat 1 1/2 cups a day in a smoothie-there’s no way I could eat that many whole.

  7. Vikki 15 September 2010 at 7:36 pm #

    Hi Diana

    I think the Costco berries do the job pretty well. Smoothies vs whole berries will not compromise the calue but make sure you drink the smoothie within about 20 minutes of making it.

    Enjoy 🙂

    Vikki(Student Nutritional Therapist)


  1. Anonymous - 26 August 2010

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