Did you know that blackberries are biochemistry superstars? The juicy beauty you may think of only as a late summer treat actually provides a nearly unrivaled feast of fruity phytonutrients. While beets shine for their unique phytonutrient content, blackberries’ claim to fame is their incredibly high concentration of antioxidant nutrients and phytonutrients. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked blackberries number one out of 1,120 antioxidant foods consumed in the United States for total antioxidants. This impressive antioxidant power is particularly significant, because oxidative damage to DNA followed by mutation and alterations in gene expression can be major contributors to cancer promotion and progression.
Blackberries have three elements—manganese, ellagic acid, and anthocyanins—which not only work as antioxidants, but have properties that fight cancer on multiple levels. They’re definitely worth a closer look.
Humans require manganese in very small amounts (around 2 milligrams per day.) However, that small amount plays a pivotal role in protecting the body against cancer. Manganese forms the core of the principal antioxidant enzyme in mitochondria, the energy generating factory present in every cell in the human body. During energy production, a free radical molecule called superoxide is formed. Manganese superoxide dismutase (MnSOD) triggers the detoxification of superoxide radicals and thus protects mitochondria from oxidative stress that could damage DNA. Recent studies have demonstrated that mitochondrial oxidative stress could actively promote tumor progression and increase the metastatic potential of cancer cells.
Ellagic acid has a unique ability: It can directly inhibit certain carcinogens, including nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, from binding to DNA. This keeps cells from multiplying at an abnormal rate. Ellagic acid also modifies tumor cell growth through its impact on multiple cell-signaling pathways, including those involved with proliferation, apoptosis, invasiveness, inflammation, and angiogenesis. As with other polyphenols, ellagic acid also acts as an antioxidant to reduce oxidative stress, which protects DNA and supports healthy cell function.
Anthocyanins are truly things of beauty—they not only provide the brilliant dark purple color we see in pansies, plums, and blackberries, they also have some of the strongest physiological effects of any plant compound. Their antioxidant prowess gets the most publicity, but studies also suggest that they protect cells from cancerous changes on several levels. Much of this is due to their ability to support healthy gene expression: Anthocyanins can turn off genes involved with tumor proliferation, invasiveness, inflammation, and angiogenesis, while switching on genes that support normal apoptosis (cell death). The most amazing thing about this is that anthocyanins selectively inhibit the growth of cancer cells with little or no effect on the growth of normal cells.
Each of these three potent phytonutrients help to prevent and fight cancer at every stage of its development. In order to reap the full benefit of this protection, blackberries should be eaten on a regular basis as these compounds, while well absorbed, also tend to be eliminated from the body fairly rapidly. Frozen blackberries are an excellent option for much of the year, but while they’re in season, put fresh blackberries to delicious use by trying the easy recipe below.
Basic Blackberry Popsicles
Makes 6 popsicles, depending on the size of your popsicle molds.
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 2/3 cup water
- 6 cups fresh blackberries*
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves completely, stirring occasionally.
- Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- Place the cooled syrup, blackberries and lemon juice in a blender. Blend until very smooth.
- Pour into popsicle molds and insert sticks. Freeze 3-4 hours or until firm.
If a smoother pop is desired, strain blended mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds before pouring mixture into molds.
*Frozen blackberries can be substituted: no need to thaw
Blackberry honey yogurt popsicles: Follow recipe above, omitting lemon juice; add ½ cup of plain whole milk yogurt and 3 Tablespoons of honey to blender. Blend until very smooth. Pour into popsicle molds and insert sticks. Freeze 3-4 hours or until firm.
Kim Jordan is the Manager of Medical Nutrition Therapy Services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.