Small fruits pack nutritional punch

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The word “berry” conjures pleasant images: sweet, ripe strawberries, perfectly round little blueberries, succulent raspberries — summer’s tastiest and most nutritious gifts. For botanists, however, the word brings a slightly different image to mind.

The botanical definition of “berry” is a fleshy fruit produced by a single plant ovary. Grapes, blueberries and cranberries fall into this category, but so do tomatoes, avocados, bananas and watermelons.

Cherries and olives fall into a category known as “drupes,” produced from a single-seeded ovary with a hard, stony layer. Strawberries are not really berries at all, but rather an “accessory fruit,” the edible part of which is not generated by the plant’s ovary.

Blueberries and cranberries, a significant Wisconsin cash crop that’s harvested in the fall, share the same family and are native to North America. Blueberries are cultivated as far north as Canada and as far south as Georgia, but Michigan is the top U.S. producer of the fruit.

Raspberries come in red, black, purple and blue varieties, with variant species producing golden or yellow raspberries that are similar in appearance but different in color and flavor. Each berry is made up of about 100 “drupelets.” The U.S. is the fourth-largest raspberry producer, after Russia, Poland and Serbia.

The first garden strawberries may have been cultivated in 18th-century France, although rudimentary cultivation went on among indigenous peoples in Chile 300 years earlier. References to wild strawberries and their medicinal uses can be found in ancient Roman literature. Today strawberry cultivation goes on worldwide, and the U.S. leads the globe, producing more than 1.3 million tons of strawberries in 2011. California is the top strawberry-growing state.

The nutritional values of berries rank them as “superfoods,” which means you should enjoy then as often as you can while the season lasts.

Blueberries have 2 grams of fiber and 10 grams of natural sugar. They’re good sources of Vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron. Although they offer the same vitamin and mineral content, raspberries tip the scale on dietary fiber with 7 grams of fiber and 4 grams of sugar. 

Strawberries swing back the other direction with 2 grams of fiber and 8 grams of sugar, but they break the bank on Vitamin C, offering 160 percent of the minimum daily requirement per cup — more than the average orange. 

A mix of berries with a fillip of whipped cream on top is one of the best ways to enjoy them. But for those who want a little more, here are some favorite recipes:

Blueberry cream muffins

Ingredients

4 eggs

2 cups white sugar or sweetener

1 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp. vanilla extract

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

2 cups sour cream

2 cups blueberries

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, grease 24 muffin cups or line with paper liners. In a large bowl beat eggs, gradually adding sugar. Continue beating while slowly adding oil. Stir in vanilla. In a separate bowl, blend flour, salt and baking soda. Stir dry ingredients into egg mixture alternately with sour cream. Gently add blueberries. Scoop batter into muffin cups and bake for 20 minutes.

Raspberry cantaloupe smoothie

Ingredients

1 cup raspberries

½ cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cubed

1 cup plain yogurt

2 tbsps. sugar or sweetener

Directions

Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into glasses, garnish with a whole raspberry or cantaloupe wedge and serve.

Strawberry avocado salad

Ingredients

2 tbsps. sugar or sweetener

2 tbsps. olive oil

4 tsps. honey

1 tsps. cider vinegar

1 tsp. lemon juice

2 cups torn salad greens

1 ripe avocado peeled, pitted and sliced

10 strawberries sliced

½ cup chopped pecans

Directions

In a small bowl whisk together sugar or sweetener, oil, vinegar and lemon juice. Let stand. In a serving bowl or plate arrange greens, avocado and strawberry slices. Drizzle the dressing over the ingredients, then sprinkle with chopped pecans. Serve immediately.