They’re cute little blue powerhouses, packed with antioxidants and flavor. Eat them by the handful or pop them into pancakes and muffins. And kids love them, too.
Blueberries – one of America’s original favorite foods – have soared in demand as more consumers tap into their many health benefits. This year’s crop is now in stores and farmers markets.
Due to the nation’s blueberry boom, California farmers have started growing more to meet demand. The state’s production has zoomed almost 52 percent in just three years.
California went from 29 million pounds to 44 million pounds. We used to be ranked eighth or ninth (among states) in total production. Now, we’re fifth or sixth – and growing.
On average, Americans eat twice as many blueberries as they did a decade ago. That consumption is expected to keep climbing. Without a doubt, blueberries are a ‘super’ fruit. They’re very high in antioxidants. But another major factor, all kids just love them. They’ll eat them like popcorn. They’re a real easy snack that’s good for them, too. Instead of junk food, parents give their kids blueberries. People are drawn to blueberries not just because they’re healthy, but also because of all the positive memories and experiences they’ve had with them – energy, enthusiasm, nostalgia and even joy. Blueberries now are America’s second favorite berry, behind only strawberries. Where once they were associated with Maine and a very short summer season, they’re now available year-round (the winter crop comes from South America and Mexico). Blueberry mania also has prompted cooks to go beyond muffins and pancakes to experiment with this colorful fruit. Blueberry margaritas anyone?
California’s crop comes early – in February in the southern parts of the state. The harvest peaks in late May and June. Late June also is peak season for pick-your-own blueberries. Blueberries are grown from San Diego to Corning. The bulk of the crop comes from the Central Valley, Kern County to Sacramento County.
California has the perfect climate and perfect conditions for blueberries which gives them very high yields. Typically California sees 10,000 to 12,000 pounds per acre. But some farms get 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre.
Blueberries grow well in the same places as a familiar wild berry – blackberries.
Harvested by hand, the blueberries go from field to package in under an hour. Warm, dry weather and acidic soil boosts blueberry production (wet berries can’t be harvested). And blueberries must be picked ripe.
Severe hailstorms in April hit some growers hard. That affected the local crop.
This year has been very interesting. The hail really hurt. We had warm weather, followed by cool weather and two huge days of windstorms. That wasn’t good for blueberries. Overall, we won’t reach the record level we had last year, but it still will be a very good crop.
California growers have yet to settle on which varieties perform best.
Nutrition: One cup of fresh blueberries contains about 84 calories and virtually no fat. They’re rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese and fiber. Blueberries also are renowned as a terrific source of antioxidants with 16 different phytonutrient compounds.
The number of berries per cup varies by the size of the berry. It can take 190 to 250 small blueberries to make one cup, while fewer than 90 extra-large blueberries equal the same amount. Because many of the antioxidants are concentrated in the skin, the smaller berries actually will have more antioxidants per cup.
Selection: Choose blueberries that are firm and have a bright, uniform color with a whitish “bloom” (the dusting that naturally protects the berry’s skin). Shake the container; berries should move freely. If not, they may be too soft or damaged. Avoid berries that appear dull in color or soft and watery in texture.
Ripening: If blueberries are too hard or underripe, place them in a paper bag with an apple. The apple releases ethylene, a natural ripening agent.
Storage: Remove any crushed or overripe berries. Don’t wash until ready to eat or use. Store in covered container in the refrigerator for up to three days. After that, they start to dehydrate.
Freezing: Wash and dry berries, then spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Freeze until solid. Then transfer them to a freezer bag. They’ll keep for six months.
Cooking with blueberries: Blueberries can stain pots and pans as well as clothes. Use stainless steel or other nonreactive cookware.
In recipes such as muffins or pancakes, add blueberries to the batter last, just before cooking. The delicate berries burst with heat or mixing. By stirring them in gently just before baking, they will bleed less color into the batter.
Health benefits, concerns: Blueberries rank among the most antioxidant-packed foods available. Research has linked them to potential benefits to brain health and the nervous system as well as improved cardiovascular health and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. They also can boost the body’s immune system and help fight cancer. A recent study credited blueberries for improving memory in older adults, too.
On the downside, blueberries contain oxalates, which can create issues for persons with gall bladder or kidney problems. Oxalates also can interfere with the body’s absorption of calcium.
High vs. low: Blueberry plants are divided into two groups: Highbush (which now account for most of the fresh crop) and lowbush (or wild).
A cousin of cranberries, lowbush blueberries – which grow under 2 feet tall – are native to Maine and Canada, where they are also farmed. Most of the lowbush crop is used for processed blueberries. The smaller berries are prized for their deep blue color and intense flavor. The wild lowbush blueberry is the official fruit of Maine.
Native fruit: The first Americans gathered wild blueberries, primarily in the Northeast, and blueberry cultivation eventually spread to many tribes. When colonists first arrived, American Indians introduced the newcomers to blueberries. Blueberries then found their way to Europe. More than half of the world’s blueberry production still comes from the United States. The top blueberry states are Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, California and North Carolina. Blueberries also are grown in South America and Australia, so fresh berries are available year round.
Why are they blue: Concentrated in the berries’ skin, anthocyanin is the pigment that turns blueberries deep, dark blue. When extracted, this pigment actually looks red. It’s also a major antioxidant. That pigment also can leave a permanent blue stain. That’s why blueberry farmers and packers tend to wear blue shirts and jeans. To remove juice stains, rinse fresh marks as soon as possible in cold water. Soak more difficult stains in a solution of 1 tablespoon vinegar mixed in one quart warm water. Or try this method: Dissolve half a scoop of Tide with Bleach detergent in one gallon of warm water in a plastic bucket. Soak stained garment up to 30 minutes, then wash. Discard soaking solution before laundering.
Blueberry.org: The official website of the Folsom-based United States Highbush Blueberry Council offers a wealth of recipes and tips. The council’s kid-oriented “Little Blue Dynamo” campaign helps parents and teachers introduce children to this bite-size fun fruit.
The peach is Georgia’s official fruit but the Georgia blueberry is fastly passing by the Georgia peach.
Turns out that while the peach slept, commercially speaking, the blueberry quietly claimed the top spot among Georgia fruits. Since 2008 the diminutive berry has brought home more money than its fuzzy cousin — $133 million in 2010, vs. $47 million for peaches, according to University of Georgia data.
Blueberry sales are five times what they were in 2003, while peach sales are basically flat.
There’s nothing as sweet as a Georgia peach, not even a little old blueberry. Now do you really think people would say, ‘That girl’s as pretty as a Georgia blueberry?’”
No fruit compares with Georgia’s top agricultural product: chicken. The state’s broiler industry notched $4.6 billion in sales in 2010, followed by cotton, eggs, timber and peanuts, according to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
Blueberries are No. 16; peaches, No. 29. But fruits, blueberries in particular, continue their surge in sales and stature as Georgia’s early-season harvests meet growing demand for healthy foods.
Blueberries used to be an agricultural afterthought, growing wild in the forests and swamps of southeast Georgia. Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey and other northern climes pretty much controlled the market.
A decade ago, Georgia tallied 8,000 acres of blueberries. Today, it has more than 19,000. Peach acres dropped from 16,000 to 12,000 during that period.
An early and long growing season – late April through July – has turned Georgia into the No. 3 blueberry-producing state after Michigan and Oregon.
But the industry wouldn’t have exploded without a series of studies touting the health benefits of the bite-sized fruit. Researchers say blueberries are rich in antioxidants and can improve memory in the elderly, reduce blood pressure, combat cardiovascular disease and while providing vitamins C and K and fiber.
Top states for blueberries, 2011:
1. Michigan – 72 million pounds
2. Oregon – 65.5 million pounds
3. Georgia – 65 million pounds
4. New Jersey – 62 million pounds
5. Washington – 61 million pounds
Source: ajc.com, 6.25.2012 & sacbee.com, 6.20.2012