Where and how it grows
What is a dark blue berry that is about the size of a pea and grows wild in Northern Europe? It grows in a small bush and is similar to a blueberry. This berry is called bilberry and it's a super berry packed with countless nutrients.
The bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus) is a European berry shrub. It is related to the blueberry, huckleberry and the bearberry plants that grow in the United States. Bilberry is a little wild perennial shrub that grows in the wild in quite specific conditions. It flowers from April to June and ripens its seeds from July to September. The plant prefers moist soil, but can tolerate strong winds. The berries are cherished by wildlife as well as providing food for a number of insect species. Bilberries are to be carefully hand-picked one by one, only using fingers in order to avoid squashing the berries or uprooting the plant.
Medicinal uses now and then
Bilberries have been used by European herbalists for centuries to treat ailments and add vitamins to everyday diets. The leaves of the plant are also used medicinally, but to a lesser extent than the berries. The leaves were used as a folk remedy for diabetes.
In Elizabethan times, bilberries were mixed with honey and made into a syrup which was prescribed for diarrhea and stomach problems. The berries were also used for infections and kidney stones, although it is most famous for its long use as a medicine for eye and vision problems. According to a legend, during WWII, British and American pilots discovered that eating bilberry jam before night missions greatly improved their night vision. Since then, extensive research in Europe has shown that bilberries contain specific compounds that have beneficial effects on the eyes and circulatory system.
What's in them
Bilberries are naturally very rich in antioxidants (flavonoids), vitamins and nutrients and at the same time full of dietary fibre but very low in fat. Antioxidants are substances that help cells in the body to resist and repair damage. Flavonoids have antioxidant and disease-fighting properties. The flavonoids found in the bilberry, provide the berry with its distinctive blue colour. The bilberry flavonoids are called anthocyanosides, which have been found to be the main active ingredients. Bilberry flavonoids can increase certain enzymes and substances in the eyes that are crucial to good vision and eye function. The anthocyanosides can increase circulation in the blood vessels in the eyes and help these blood vessels repair and protect themselves.
The antioxidant powers and health benefits of bilberries can be attributed to a number of remarkable compounds they contain among the anthocyanins, vitamin C, resveratrol, vitamin E and ellagic acid. Resveratrol belongs to a class of antioxidants called polyphenols. It is naturally formed by some plants as a protective mechanism against injury, fungal infection or overexposure to UV radiation. It is believed that as an antioxidant, resveratrol may offer similar protective benefits to humans, helping to defend against free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that attack healthy cells, impairing their ability to function properly. Ellagic acid has been found in studies to alleviate skin wrinkles and inflammation caused by UV radiation. Vitamin E maintains the structure of cell membrane and acts as an antioxidant protecting the polyunsaturated fatty acids from free radicals and oxidation.
Bilberry's usefulness as medicinal herb has been documented in many studies. One study demonstrated that bilberry's flavonoids lowered cholesterol levels in the blood and improved circulation. Along these benefits, the bilberry is rich in linoleic acid (omega 6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3). A healthy diet contains a balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. The balance of omegas' in bilberries is (116mg for omega 3: 123mg for omega 6 (in 100g)). Omega 3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation and some omega 6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, therefore a good balance of these essential fatty acids in a healthy diet is a must.
We need omega 3 for numerous different bodily functions, such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain. They are also associated with many health benefits, such as protection against heart disease and possibly even stroke. Along with the omega 3, omega 6 plays a crucial role in brain function as well as growth and development. Being a essential fatty acid, means that the body cannot make them but need to get them through the food you eat.
Bilberries have also been found to have a high concentration of pectin (a type of fibre), which is seen to clear intestinal toxins that may contribute to acne. Bilberries also contain chemicals called tannins that can help improve diarrhea as well as mouth and throat irritation by reducing swelling (inflammation).
How to use them
Besides their medicinal use, they are often eaten fresh or made into jams and preserves. As bilberries are wild blueberries and need to be hand-picked, they are not available around the world to be enjoyed fresh and even the jams are difficult to find in ordinary shops. Bilberry powder, that has been gently made from fresh berries using only low heat to dry the berries and then ground into a smooth textured powder is a good option to enjoy these magnificent berries year round.
Bilberries provide your diet with a broad spectrum of nutrients that support your bodily functions. If thinking about other possible sources for this vitamin and antioxidant punch, comparing to bilberry to an apple. Apples are also antioxidant and vitamin rich fruits with a good level of vitamin C (6mg in 100g) and vitamin K (5mcg in 100g) but they also contain more carbohydrates than the bilberries. Apples do not have a balanced level of omega's, although they contain some of both omega 3 and omega 6 (4mg and 20mg in 100g) whereas the levels are about triple in bilberries.
Using the Antioxidant Color Wheel, the purple-blue-red-orange spectrum is home to the most antioxidant rich fruits. Wild blueberries (bilberries) are the overall winner overall with one cup containing 13 427 total of antioxidants, vitamins A and C as well as flavonoids with the apple (Gala) coming up to a total of 3 903 for the same vitamins. So remember to add a rainbow of colour to your diet!