The Bar Harbor Group

Annual Wild Blueberry Summit Spotlights New Brain, Heart and Vision Health Studies

2012 marked the 15th Annual Wild Blueberry Health Research Summit in Bar Harbor, Maine, where  leading researchers from the US, Europe and Canada gathered to  collaborate and share their latest findings on the potential health benefits of Wild Blueberries.

Building on years of solid groundwork, the Summit attendees, known collectively as “The Bar Harbor Group,” presented research with promising results in a wide range of human health-related fields, including brain health, cardiovasular disease, cancer prevention, diabetes, vision health and metabolic syndrome.

Researchers attribute potential health benefits of the Wild Blueberry to antioxidants such as anthocyanins, anti-inflammatories and other natural compounds found in the berry's deep blue pigment. Wild Blueberries score at the top of the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) chart and new research clearly demonstrates that Wild Blueberries are higher than other fruits, including cultivated blueberries, in total phenolics, anthocyanins, and flavonoids—all hot areas of interest for scientists.

Over the past 15 years, the scope of Wild Blueberry health research has broadened dramatically. In 2012, more than 100 new studies, in a wide range of areas, will be published on the blueberry’s potential benefits to human health. There has also been an increase in the number of human clinical trials being conducted, looking at the impacts of adding Wild  Blueberies to the human diet.

Among the studies discussed at this year’s summit are several focused on brain function, vision health and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors associated with diabetes and heart disease. Highlights include:

Slowing cognitive decline and improving memory and motor function in the elderly

o      Dr. Robert Krikorian of the University of Cincinnati’s Cognitive Aging Program has been investigating the effects of blueberry supplementation on memory and other age-related conditions in older adults. Early studies demonstrated improved cognitive function in elderly subjects who consumed Wild Blueberry juice. Current trials are investigating the effect of blueberry supplementation on memory, metabolic function, inflammation and brain function in elderly subjects with normal memory decline as well as those with Mild Cognitive Impairment, a risk factor for dementia.

o      Dr. Mary Ann Lila, Director of Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University, reported on an ongoing study examining the effect of Wild Blueberry consumption on cognition, body composition and inflammatory and oxidative stress markers in older individuals with mild cognitive decline. The study, led by Carol Cheatham of the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute, comes out of UNC’s USDA program on Individualized Nutrition.

o      Dr. Barbara Shukitt-Hale from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, who previously demonstrated that a blueberry-enriched diet improves memory and motor function in laboratory animals, is now beginning a clinical trial.  She will study similar parameters in people who are middle to old age and consume a diet supplemented with blueberries

Improving brain function at any age

o      Researchers at England's University of Reading are investigating the benefits of blueberries in both elderly and younger individuals. Dr. Georgina Dodd, Dr. Laurie Butler and Prof. Jeremy Spencer found that blueberry supplementation can acutely improve cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in healthy young and elderly subjects.

o      In another University of Reading trial, Adrian Whyte, Dr. Claire Williams and Dr. Graham Schafer are looking at the impacts of blueberries on the cognitive function of children aged 7-9, the first time this age group has been studied.

Reducing the risk factors for diabetes, heart disease

o      Dr. William Cefalu of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of the Louisiana State University System is now building on his group’s prior research that showed the positive effect of a blueberry diet on insulin sensitivity, a key factor in preventing type 2 diabetes. He is currently conducting clinical trials focusing on the effect of blueberries on cardiovascular risk factors that are associated with metabolic syndrome, or pre-diabetes. Specifically, his team is evaluating whether supplementing a diet with blueberries will reduce blood pressure, improve lipid levels and improve blood vessel function. Although analysis is currently ongoing, preliminary results appear to be very encouraging.

o      Dr. Ana Rodriquez-Mateos and Prof. Jeremy Spencer, from the University of Reading, conducted research indicating that Wild Blueberries can improve cardiovascular function in healthy young men. The findings suggest that the polyphenols or bioactive plant compounds in Wild Blueberries may help prevent the progression of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis.

Preserving eye health

o      Dr. Wilhelmina Kalt, food chemist with Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, reported on the work of Dr. François Tremblay from the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dr. Tremblay's team is studying how a blueberry-enriched diet may prevent retinal degeneration, which can result in serious eye disorders and diseases. These animal studies provide strong preliminary evidence that Wild Blueberries could have a protective effect in some retinal conditions; a clinical trial is currently ongoing to see if a Wild Blueberry-enriched diet could be beneficial in preventing retinal degeneration in humans. 

Why Wild Blueberries are the superfruit leaders

o      Dr. Rui Hai Liu from the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, reported on the results of a new analytical tool measuring the relative flavonoid content in various fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are plant compounds such as anthocyanin,  a potent antioxidant found in the deep blue pigment of blueberries. Wild blueberries have a dramatically higher concentration of flavonoids than most other fruits and vegetables.

Harnessing the Power of “Blue”

The simple take-away from these and other ongoing studies is that Wild Blueberries are a smart addition to a healthy diet. They are good for the brain, good for the heart, good for the eyes and readily available year-round in the frozen fruit section of the supermarket.

Now scientists are looking for more ways to bring the antioxidant "power of blue" to consumers. During the summit, NC State's Dr. Mary Ann Lila described her research on the development of low-caloric functional foods that combine the bioactive compounds from Wild Blueberries with health-promoting proteins to create a novel andhighly versatile food ingredient.

While researchers work to understand how the antioxidants and other compounds in Wild Blueberries function in the body to promote human health and prevent disease, one thing is certain: more good news will be forthcoming.

To learn more about blueberry health research, visit the Wild Blueberry Association Research Library, where you'll find hundreds of health-related studies on a wide variety of topics. The Library is updated regularly by Dr. Ronald Prior.