Blueberries booming as word spreads about health benefits

Reports about the health benefits of blueberries have consumers plucking the tasty little fruits as fast as Chance Creek Blues Organic Blueberry Farm can grow them.

Owner Bo Arbogast is thrilled with customer turnout at his Amherst, Ohio, farm but says it can be a little overwhelming at times.

"They're coming out at all hours of the day," he said.

With July being prime harvesting season in Ohio and other Midwestern states, blueberries are in demand at pick-your-own farms like Arbogast's and in grocery store fruit aisles.

There were 166 million pounds of blueberries produced for retail sale in North America last year, up about 84 percent since 1995, according to the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association.

Growers say publicity over the blueberry's health benefits is the top reason sales are up.

"People are more cognizant of the type of foods they eat," said Kirk McCreary, the association's general manager. "There's no question this is a very positive thing."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says blueberries rank No. 1 in antioxidant activity compared to 40 other fruits and vegetables.

Scientific reports published over the last five years, stemming from studies at Tufts University, Rutgers University, and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, all have hailed the blueberry's nutritional assets.

The pigment that makes blueberries blue, anthocyanin, is thought to be responsible for the beneficial antioxidants, which help neutralize harmful metabolism byproducts called "free radicals" that can lead to cancer and other age related diseases.

"We're packed with people saying that kind of stuff," Arbogast said. "We have people on chemotherapy coming out."

His three acres of blueberries, located 30 miles west of Cleveland, suffered through a tough growing year. April was too cold, May too hot and June too dry.

Still, there's plenty of pickers snatching up the berries at $1.50 per pound, less than what they cost in the grocery store. The farm's weekend crowd consists of parents and children while seniors citizens make up the weekday crowd, Arbogast said.

Laboratory studies suggest that increased blueberry consumption may reverse age-related short-term memory loss and help people to regain some balance and coordination.

Arbogast is planning to plant more blueberries to meet demand next season, as is Rod Cook, the managing partner of Pan-American Berry Growers, which operates farms in Washington and Oregon.

"It's really kind of a worldwide phenomenon," Cook said of the blueberry health craze. "The research community and growers and consumers have latched on that and have never looked back."

He said the key to the blueberry's popularity isn't just that they're healthy.

"There's lots of healthy things that the consumers have not grabbed onto and embraced," he said. "Not only are they healthy for you, but they're very tasty and simple to prepare. All you do is pop them in your mouth."

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