Many Canadians who have spent some or all of their childhood in the countryside hold fond memories of countless hours each summer spent picking a variety of appetizing berries, whether grown wild in fields and forests or cultivated on farms.

Indeed, there are over 200 species of small, fleshy fruits Canadians refer to as "berries." Each and every summer they are enjoyed in jams, pies, and other baked goods, served with creams and yogurts, or just consumed by the handful, often fresh from the vine. All of these tasty and sweet "berries" are like nature's own candy, yet loaded with beneficial nutrients instead of unnecessary sugars.

Interestingly, technically most of the "berries" we eat don't fall into the botanical category "berry," which is a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced by a single ovary - for example cranberries but also avocados, tomatoes, and even bananas. Rather, most "berries" are small fruits that fall into different botanical categories, including drupes, pomes, false berries, and aggregate fruits. Here are some of these common "berries" and their nutritional profiles.

Drupes are fruits (such as apricots and peaches) and "berries" with an outer edible fleshy part that surrounds a solid shell or pit. The most obvious example, cherries, grow in various regions across Canada, but are most often found in British Columbia and Ontario. Like most of the "berries" that we'll be looking at, cherries contain high levels of polyphenols, such as anthocyanins, which act as potent antioxidants with health protection and benefits that are under research. Cherry anthocyanins have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation in rats, and a study with rats on a high-fat diet found that rats given whole tart cherry powder did not build up as much body fat, showed much lower levels of indicators of the kind of inflammation that has been linked to heart disease and diabetes, and had significantly lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. While these findings are promising, there is not yet conclusive evidence that humans should expect the same results.

Pomes are fruits (such as apples and pears) and "berries" with fleshy fruit and several seed chambers, with a thicker skin that surrounds a fleshy more edible part found just outside the leathery seed-containing core. One such pome, saskatoon berries - which take their name from the Cree word for sweet, fleshy fruits - grow on shrubs that are found from western Ontario to British Columbia and the Yukon. Sweet in taste, these berries have antioxidant activity because they contain anthocyanins and phenols. The saskatoon berry may protect against diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and macular degeneration. Further, saskatoon berries contain higher levels of protein, fat, and fibre than most other fruits.

False berries are those whose edible parts are made from a point on the plant other than the single ovary, including some parts of the flower (e.g., sepals, petals, and stamen). Blueberries, grown in almost all regions of Canada, are a popular example. Blueberries are loaded with healthy micronutrients, including manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, and dietary fibre. They also contain phytonutrients, including anthocyanins, flavonols, and tannins, which have been found to inhibit cancer cell development and decrease inflammation in test tubes in laboratories. Blueberries also contain resveratrol, a phytochemical usually associated with red grapes and wine, that may have anti-cancer properties. Other research hints that the consumption of blueberries may also alleviate the cognitive decline occurring in Alzheimer's disease, prevent urinary tract infections, and affect blood cholesterol levels.

Aggregate fruits are those that have one flower containing several ovaries which each develop into a small fruit. These small fruits are joined tightly together to make a larger fruit, like a raspberry. Raspberries have a high amount of dietary fibre. Raspberries have the potential for high antioxidant strength, particularly due to their content of ellagic acid and polyphenols such as anthocyanin. Raspberries are also a rich source of vitamin C and manganese, and contain folic acid, magnesium, copper, and iron.

Finally, also technically not a berry due to the fact that its edible part is not derived from the plant's ovaries, there is the strawberry. Strawberries are nutrition powerhouses and taste great whether they are fresh, frozen, made into preserves, dried, or added into dairy products or baked goods. Growing in woodlands, meadows, clearings, and coastlines, strawberries, ounce for ounce, have more vitamin C than citrus fruit. Also containing modest amounts of iron and soluble fibre, strawberries may help in the treatment of anemia, fatigue, and high cholesterol.

So next time your sweet tooth is craving a sugary treat, grab a handful of naturally sweet berries. Not only do they taste great, they are loaded with vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, and phytochemicals that have the potential to provide health benefits like anti-oxidant protection and disease prevention. And a Canadian summer just would not be complete without a lazy, sunny day of berry picking.

Brennan Robertson, Hon. B.Sc. (Nutrition)
with updates by the MediResource Clinical Team