Dr Lila on blueberries
We know that good food, unprocessed as nature intended it, is good for us. But it’s hard to ignore the seductive messages from the supplement and pharmaceutical industries that it is easier to pop a pill rather than prepare and eat real food. The good news is that there is world-beating research, based out of American North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute which is pioneering a dramatic shift in the way we use plant food crops for their powerful components that protect and enhance human health. The researchers talk of metabolomics, biochemistry, pharmacogenomics, breeding and post-harvest attributes, but the institute’s director, Dr Mary Ann Lila, is far more down-to-earth.
“My firm conviction is that we need to eat the food; not try to reduce food components into pills and supplements. In the vast majority of cases, the supplement is never as beneficial as the actual food/fruit,” she explains. “Fresh or frozen blueberries contain the wonderful interacting mixture of health protective compounds. But the natural components in the blueberry are ephemeral — they are perishable, just like the fruit itself. So, when berry solids are heated/spray-dried, for example, to formulate them into a capsule, so many of the active compounds are degraded or destroyed in the process.”
Dr Lila, regularly in New Zealand to work with researchers at Plant and Food Research Ltd (CRI) and Massey University, sees a return to eating curative food to combat diseases, rather than drugs. Dubbed the “rock star of blueberries”, she has focused her recent research on the berries because range of compounds (phytochemicals) that they have evolved to synthesise to protect them against the stresses in their growing environment are the same ones that interact with human receptors in the body to protect against diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and more.
“The magnificent blend of phytoactives arewell concentrated in cultivated blueberries, and the brilliant colour is like a beacon or signal that those phytochemicals are there,” she says. Her Massey research is looking at how the berries increase satiety (the sensation of feeling “full”) to help curb weight gain) and also how they encourage the “good” microflora in the human gut to aid digestion and regulation.
All that research distils into one simple message from Dr Lila: eat half a cup of blueberries (frozen are fine) a day. She eats hers with her morning cereal of hot oatmeal and almond milk, keeps fresh ones in season to “pop like candy”. Her blueberry salsa — the berries replace tomatoes — is a local legend. Pair a vinaigrette with other good foods like spinach, nuts or almonds with chicken or salmon for a nutrition-dense meal.