Wild blueberries: flavour & nutrition in one small berry
On any given day, you can walk into a grocery store and buy frozen blueberries. The most common berry used in frozen fruit is the wild blueberry, which has a whole host of nutritional benefits. It is also one of Canada’s number one fruit exports. I spoke with Wilhelmina Kalt PhD, a consultant for the Wild Blueberry Association of North America (WBANA), about wild blueberries. She shed some light on the difference between wild blueberries and cultivated blueberries, the production process, and the myriad of health benefits.
Wild blueberries vs cultivated
Other than the fact that wild and cultivated blueberries belong to the same the plant “family”, almost everything about these two blueberries is different. According to Dr. Kalt, wild blueberries are botanically different from cultivated blueberries. This has a lot to do with the way the two berries have been developed over the years.
“The wild blueberries are truly growing wild in the forest. The cultivated blueberries grow more like an ornamental shrub,” says Dr. Kalt. “In contrast, the cultivated blueberries are another species. People have gone and selected certain types thinking, ‘wow, that one’s got a lot of fruit on it’ or ‘wow, that’s a really big fruit’. That’s what the cultivated blueberry industry is based on. They’re a lot bigger, because they’ve always been selected for big.”
Where cultivated blueberries are bred for size, wild blueberries are allowed to grow as they like. This method produces smaller berries, and, a single field of wild berries has many different genetic types.
“Here in Nova Scotia, if you go to a wild blueberry field, it’s a knee-high ground cover; it’s one continuous blanket of wild blueberries,” remarks Dr. Kalt. “When you look at that, you’re actually looking at hundreds of different genetic types. So, it’s all of these different genetics that have mixed together.”
Wild blueberries aren’t ever planted – they’re found in the wild and the fields are developed for commercial purposes. “If you were to start a new wild blueberry field, you would go to the forest and see that you have some pretty good coverage of plants,” explains Dr. Kalt. “You’d clear the trees to let the sun come in … get the big boulders out of there so you could do more mechanisation and have better access. You try to deal with the weeds and then you try to get it into a production cycle.”
The production cycle of wild blueberries differs from almost all agricultural produce in that they harvest every other year, rather than every year. “There’s a good reason for that,” Dr. Kalt explains. “You know that with pruning you get more fuller branching, you have a lot more branching on your shrubs, and more flower buds and so on. It’s the same thing on wild blueberries.”
The every-other-year production schedule allows growers to ensure the bushes are pruned, branching well, and creating more flower buds and fruit. Due to the bell-shaped flower, wild blueberries cannot propagate by wind alone. Instead, the producers bring in “pollinators”, as they’re called in the industry. These pollinators are usually honeybees, Dr. Kalt says.
Luckily for the farmers looking to start developing a wild blueberry patch, the bushes are hearty and more than happy to spread out in a field. “As soon as it gets a toehold, it’ll keep going,” says Dr. Kalt. “It’s fairly shallow rooted. It really doesn’t take much soil at all to keep it going. If you’re willing to coax it along, then it will grow and then just continue to spread.”
With that in mind, not all wild blueberries are certified organic. “The trick would be not to make wild synonymous with organic,” says Dr. Kalt. “The genetics are wild, but the production system is a semi-cultivated type of thing. To ensure their productivity, producers do control for some key things … a combination of diseases and insects.”
Intense flavour profile
This difference in the blueberries are grown – in a mishmash of every genetic variety possible – means that the fruit flavour is different from cultivated blueberries. “I think a key thing for the consumer experience is, when you buy fresh cultivated blueberries, you’re buying one variety,” Dr. Kalt explains. “If you’re eating wild blueberries, you’re eating many different varieties all at once; you always have a mixture. So, you have a greater diversity of flavour. You have a fuller flavour profiles, because they’re just genetically more diverse.”
We compared the two types of blueberries to wine. A basket of cultivated blueberries is akin to a varietal wine, made from a single grape type. Whereas wild blueberries are more like a blended wine, made from multiple grapes. “But in the case of the wild blueberries,” adds Dr. Kalt, “it would be a much bigger blend. In wine, they might use two or three grapes. In wild blueberries, you’ve got hundreds.”
The smaller size also contributes to the more intense flavour experience. “Where those flavour compounds are distributed [also contributes to the wild flavour],” explains Dr. Kalt. “For example, the peel contributes to the flavour, and you’ve got a lot more peel in the smaller wild fruit right. So that contributes to the mouthfeel. It’s going to give it some astringency.”
Nutritious and delicious
Wild blueberries pack a wallop when it comes to nutritional value. Studies show that wild blueberries protect against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. You can visit the WBANA website for an extensive list of health benefits. According to Dr. Kalt, the pigments are the most important aspect of wild blueberries with regards to the nutritional value.
“These pigments are found in any berry that is red, blue or purple,” Dr. Kalt says. “You can imagine, blueberries are just loaded. We’re learning more and more about the various actions that they have in the body, that are overall beneficial.”
Much of Dr. Kalt’s research in the past and her interest going forward is in these pigments, called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are a flavonoid, a class of compounds with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-cancer benefits.
“I think what the field of nutrition is realizing now is that there’s a real nexus between cardiovascular disease, obesity, glucose regulation, diabetes, and all of those things. Like, there’s a big ol’ Venn Diagram involving all of those things,” says Dr. Kalt. “Then, if you look at these pigments. They have a variety of different benefits to mitigate aspects of aging, inflammation, obesity, Type 2, cardiovascular. And the population studies are bearing that out. There’s more and more literature emerging that people who eat these pigments regularly have those benefits. So personally, I’m all about those pigments.”
Wild blueberries have more anthocyanins than cultivated blueberries. Which may be a good thing, though that is still being queried by the experts. “In the study of these things, people want to liken them to drugs, to think that there’s a very tight dose response: ‘The more I take, the bigger the effect.’ But not necessarily here,” Dr. Kalt continues. “These are foods that support health. But we really don’t know when we’ve overdone it. The amount these people [in the studies] are reporting eating is not very much at all. It’s 30 grams a day. I think that would be a quarter cup, at most. That’s not very much.”
Luckily, and I double checked with Dr. Kalt, you won’t every O.D. on blueberries or anthocyanins. The worst that could happen is that your stomach will be stained blue.
Take advantage of all these health benefits by incorporating wild blueberries in your daily menu (you just need half a cup to a cup) The WBANA shared the following recipe that would be a great lunch treat.
Phyllo Pockets with Spinach, Feta and Wild Blueberries
115 g (4 oz) pound baby spinach
4 green onions
225 g (8 oz) Feta cheese
4 tbsp (60 ml) sour cream
1 organic egg
3 tbsp (45 ml) bread crumbs
Freshly ground pepper
1 package (8 oz) phyllo dough
1 tbsp (15 ml) olive oil
1 cup (250 ml) frozen wild blueberries
Wash and dry spinach and tear into small pieces. Wash green onions and slice into rings. Finely cube Feta. Combine onions, spinach, Feta, sour cream, egg and bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 190°C (375° F). Place three sheets of pastry on top of each other and cut into four equal pieces to form three-layer squares. Grease muffin tin. Place a square of dough into each muffin mold and press down lightly; repeat for all twelve molds.
Fold wild blueberries into the feta mixture. Distribute mixture evenly among muffin molds. Twist the ends of the dough to create a seal at the top. Bake for 15–20 minutes on the lowest rack of the oven until golden brown.
Recipes and images to be used in association with or credited to the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.