By Victor S. Sierpina 

Walking into a local grocery store recently, I was pleased by a colorful display of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for sale at the bargain of two packs for $5.

I loaded several into my basket and brought them home to the delight of my family.

Berries were a special treat for me as a child. Our neighbors had a blackberry bramble, and we occasionally could snatch a few berries from there before the Phoenix sun burned them.

Mulberry trees were another and prolific source of seasonal berries I remember as a child. Besides that, frozen or fresh strawberries were always a pleasure by themselves or with dessert.

Now, with year-round availability because of improved shipping, we can have berries all year round.

While they are still a treat for most of us, the health benefits of the berry family are enormous. Sharing in the benefits of the berries I already mentioned are other related species like purple grapes, cranberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, fresh currants and cherries.

The nutritional value of berries is extensive as their rich supply of antioxidant pigments, carotenoids, fiber, folic acid, vitamin C each make a contribution to long term health.

Berries have been found in many studies to improve eye and brain health; blueberries have been found in research studies to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

They have been called “brainberries” for this reason. I recommend berries especially to my diabetic patients to protect their vision. Berries help to reduce cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular risk, improve urinary tract and gastrointestinal health and decrease inflammation.

A recent study from Switzerland even showed a beneficial effect of bilberries, the European version of blueberries, on reducing disease symptoms in even severe a disease as ulcerative colitis.

Of historical interest, bilberries were eaten by the British pilots during World War II to improve their night vision as the anthocyanin chemical in them help improved eyesight. Berries were part of the arsenal of medication available to the early American colonists as they kept things like blackberry brandy and other berry extracts for digestive problems such as diarrhea.

Berries make for a colorful and delightful addition to your diet. Sprinkle a handful on your cereal or yogurt, adorn a salad with one or two varieties, either fresh or dried or use them instead of pastry or ice cream for a healthful dessert.

I make a breakfast smoothie that my grandkids devour with a cup or two of frozen blueberries, some high pulp orange juice and soy protein powder. This is not only delicious but packs a lot of fruit into one simple drink.

Cranberries can be especially useful in protecting against urinary tract infections and kidney stones as well as increasing good cholesterol. Be thankful cranberries are not just for Thanksgiving anymore with lots of varieties of juices, dried or fresh cranberries, as well as frozen now available.

Red grapes and red wine have been thought to reduce heart risk because of the antioxidants, but blueberries have even higher concentrations of these antioxidants. A daily dose of 1⁄2 cup to 1 cup of berries is probably about right for most of us and with the variety of types and preparations, it is easy to get into your diet.

When getting the juices, try to find the 100 percent juice rather than that with a lot of sugar added. This is particularly true if using cranberry juice for preventing urinary tract infections. If you can’t find it, cranberry capsules from your health food or drugstore are a good substitute.

Even if your favorite berry is not in season or is pricey at a certain time of year, I find getting a couple of bags of frozen berries, either of one variety or mixed is an economical, practical way to keep them available all the time.

Isn’t it nice when something so good to eat also is so good for your health? I hope you take my berry good advice and stock up, eat up and berry up your menu.

Dr. Sierpina is the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch.