Wild Blueberries and Kids’ Brains
We want the best for our children—and providing nutritious food is a big part of starting them on the path toward a lifetime of good health. In fact, cognitive function in older adults is determined in part by the cognitive ability attained in childhood. 1
Cognitive development is influenced by many factors, including nutrition. What’s more, the brain develops faster than the rest of the body during childhood, which makes it more vulnerable to dietary deficiencies. Just as fruits and vegetables provide myriad benefits for adults’ bodies and brains, packing plenty of produce into the diets of our kids is a smart move.
A diet containing a variety of fruits and vegetables contributes an array of much-needed nutrients to growing children’s bodies and brains. In addition, there is increasing evidence of a link between improved nutrition, physical brain development and optimal brain function. Finding tasty ways to nourish your child’s brain is certainly food for thought. 2
How do wild blueberries boost brain power in kids?
Given that scientists had already observed that the consumption of wild blueberries conferred a variety of cognitive benefits to adults, they wondered if these benefits would extend to children as well.
And it looks like they do. A growing body of research suggests that children and adolescents experience some cognitive performance improvements after consuming wild blueberries.
In children and teens, the scientific research to date indicates that wild blueberries may provide benefits for:
- Aspects of executive function
- Response times
Prior to 2015, most nutrition-related cognition and brain development studies in children were focused on the mother’s diet during pregnancy/breastfeeding or on specific eating occasions for children, such as breakfast. There also were no double-blind, fully controlled research studies looking at the short-term effects of flavonoids on the cognitive behavior of children.
Flavonoids are a large group of natural antioxidant compounds found in fruits, vegetables, coffee, cocoa and tea. Especially abundant in wild blueberries, anthocyanins are the primary flavonoid compound in berries.
The gap in the scientific literature was filled in 2015 by the first wild blueberry cognition study with children.3 And, additional papers that further explored the topic soon followed.
Although the mechanisms for how blueberries and wild blueberries benefit cognition and brain function for people at any age is not fully known, it’s plausible that anthocyanins make the greatest contribution to blueberry health benefits. You may already know that wild blueberries contain 33% more anthocyanins than regular blueberries, making wild blueberries more potent providers of these healthful compounds. In addition, research shows that anthocyanins are extensively modified in the body during digestion, and the resulting compounds, known as metabolites, are likely also a key to the health effects conferred by wild blueberries.4
Wild blueberries & memory in children
Unlike aging adults, kids seem less concerned with the state of their memories. However, parents typically want to do everything they can to help their children reach their mental potential, and memory is a part of that.
There are several studies that indicate consuming wild blueberries prior to completing a memorization task can result in significant improvements in a child’s performance on that task. One study of children aged 8-10 showed that the children performed better on a word recall test two hours after drinking one wild blueberry beverage, compared to a placebo beverage.3
In a similar study headed by the same researcher, the cognitive performance of 7–10-year-olds was examined at multiple time points after they had consumed either a wild blueberry test beverage or a placebo drink. And, like the previous study, significant wild blueberry-related improvements were observed for the word list-learning task at every time point.5
Although it would be a stretch to say that there’s a direct correlation between the results of these studies and better grades at school, the study authors do suggest that memory study results, in combination with executive function research results, appear to point to some benefits of wild blueberry supplementation on children’s academic performance.
The impact of wild blueberries on executive function in children
Executive function refers to the skills we use to plan, organize, stay focused, solve problems and self-regulate. Executive function skills, controlled by the frontal lobe area of the brain, develop at different rates. As a whole, executive function isn’t fully developed until early adulthood.
Unfortunately, children who have problems with executive function can face academic challenges. Some performance tests of executive function abilities in elementary school-aged children have been found to be predictive of math and reading ability. 6, 7
The results of a double-blind study published in 2017 showed that children who consumed a wild blueberry beverage (containing a wild blueberry powder equivalent to about 1 ¾ cups frozen wild blueberries) before being challenged with cognitive computer-based tasks designed to test executive function aspects such as attention or concentration and decision-making), performed better than those who received the placebo drink. The children were tested on three different occasions, which allowed the researchers to investigate what happened when they made the tasks easier or more difficult across the different trials.
Interestingly, the beneficial impact of the wild blueberry treatment was most obvious during the more demanding tests—a fact that the researchers say reinforces that the wild blueberry treatment had a beneficial effect on executive function.8
Flavonoids are known to increase cerebral blood flow. The researchers suggest it’s possible that increased blood flow to key areas of the brain required to perform the tasks in this study might be an underlying mechanism for the improved executive function skill demonstrated.9
Do wild blueberries improve reaction times in children?
The same study that documented improved executive function abilities in 7—10-year-old children after consuming a wild blueberry beverage, also demonstrated that those children also had faster response times.
A significant 9% increase in reaction speed was observed in the children following the wild blueberry drink compared to the placebo—with no trade-off in accuracy of responses. What’s more, these improvements were seen on the most cognitively demanding tasks. This, the authors said, indicates improvement in information processing speed, and is considered supportive of the potential impact of wild blueberries on academic achievement.8
Can wild blueberries help banish blue moods in teens?
Adolescence is an important period of cognitive development, and it’s during this time that children become vulnerable to developing depression. Population studies in adults suggest that the consumption of flavonoids, typically through fruits and vegetables, is associated with a decreased risk of developing depression. Does that association also hold for teenagers?
A 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Reading in the UK was the first fully controlled, double-blind trial to investigate the effects of flavonoids on short-term mood in young people.
This preliminary study was actually conducted with two groups: some young adults aged 18-21 and some children, aged 7-10. In both studies, participants were asked to rate their mood on a numbered scale both prior to and two hours after consumption of a wild blueberry beverage (or placebo). In both groups, participants recorded a significant increase in positive mood after drinking the wild blueberry drink.10
Another study by the same research group investigated the effects of daily wild blueberry or placebo beverages on teens’ transient and chronic moods and anxiety symptoms over a period of 4 weeks.
For this randomized, double-blind experiment, 64 healthy adolescents were recruited from four schools in the UK. At the conclusion of the study, the participants who got the wild blueberry drink reported significantly lower scores on the measure of depression symptoms than those who were randomized to the placebo group. There was no effect on anxiety symptoms or on transient positive or negative effects, although the researchers suggest that perhaps with a larger sample size there may have been a significant effect.
Overall, these results are consistent with previous population studies that suggest anti-depressive effects of a flavonoid-rich diet, and are aligned with the group’s previous data on positive mood in children and teens.11
Wild Blueberries are a great addition to young diets
This collection of research results is encouraging, since increasing the flavonoid content of the diet through the consumption of more produce, such as wild blueberries, is a relatively easy lifestyle option that may be helpful in boosting mood and well-being. It’s important to note, however, that because the effects of these interventions were observed in a general community sample, the results cannot necessarily be applied to teens with more severe symptoms of depression or a clinical diagnosis of depression.
Given what we know about wild blueberries and the positive impact consumption can have on brain function, it makes good sense to start eating them on the regular — a healthy scoop of wild blueberries every day is a good “habit” for brains at any age!
- Gow, A. J., Johnson, W., Pattie, A., Brett, C. E., Roberts, B., Starr, J. M., & Deary, I.J. Stability and change in intelligence from age 11 to ages 70, 79, and 87: the Lothian Birth Cohorts of 1921 and 1936. (2011) Psychology and Aging, 26(1), 232–240. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021072
- Nyardi, A., Li, J.,Hickling, S., Foster, J., Oddy, W. The role of nutrition in neurocognitive development from pregnancy through childhood. (2013) Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 58(7) 2911-2920. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00097
- Whyte, A. R., & Williams, C. M. Effects of a single dose of a flavonoid-rich blueberry drink on memory in 8 to 10 y old children. (2015) Nutrition, 31(3), 531–534. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2014.09.013
- Kalt, W., Cassidy, A., Howard, L. R., Krikorian, R., Stull, A. J., Tremblay, F., & Zamora-Ros, R. (2020). Recent Research on the Health Benefits of Blueberries and Their Anthocyanins. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 11(2), 224–236. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz065
- 6Whyte, A. R., Schafer, G., & Williams, C. M. (2016). Cognitive effects following acute wild blueberry supplementation in 7- to 10-year-old children. (2016) European Journal of Nutrition, 55(6), 2151–2162. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-015-1029-4
- 7Calderon, J. Executive function in children and how to help. Dec 2020. Harvard Health Publishing https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/executive-function-in-children-why-it-matters-and-how-to-help-2020121621583
- 8Gerst, E. H., Cirino, P. T., Fletcher, J. M., & Yoshida, H. (2017). [Formula: see text] Cognitive and behavioral rating measures of executive function as predictors of academic outcomes in children. Child Neuropsychology 23(4), 381–407. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2015.1120860
- 9Whyte, A. R., Schafer, G., & Williams, C. M. (2017). The effect of cognitive demand on performance of an executive function task following wild blueberry supplementation in 7 to 10 year old children. Food & Function, 8(11), 4129–4138. https://doi.org/10.1039/c7fo00832e
- 10Vauzour, D., Vafeiadou, K., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Rendeiro, C., & Spencer, J. P. (2008). The neuroprotective potential of flavonoids: a multiplicity of effects. Genes & Nutrition, 3(3-4), 115–126. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12263-008-0091-4
- 11Khalid, S., Barfoot, K. L., May, G., Lamport, D. J., Reynolds, S. A., & Williams, C. M. (2017). Effects of acute blueberry flavonoids on mood in children and young adults. Nutrients, 9(2), 158. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9020158
- 13Fisk, J., Khalid, S., Reynolds, S. A., & Williams, C. M. (2020). Effect of 4 weeks daily wild blueberry supplementation on symptoms of depression in adolescents. The British journal of nutrition, 1–8. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114520000926
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