Taking a look at berries’ nutritional punch

We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for us, that we’re better off eating a handful of berries than of potato chips, or snacking on carrot sticks rather than cookies. But how do berries compare with other fruit choices? At the most recent Berry Health Benefits conference in May 2019, Dr. Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington showed the following graph as part of a presentation on nutrient density profiling. Let’s take a closer look.

First, what are flavonoids? As an article in LiveScience explains, “Flavonoids are a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables. Along with carotenoids, they are responsible for the vivid colors in fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are the largest group of phytonutrients, with more than 6,000 types… . Like other phytonutrients, flavonoids are powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits. Diets rich in flavonoid-containing foods are sometimes associated with cancer, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular disease prevention.” If you’ve heard of anthocyanins, they are the flavonoids that give berries their dark red, blue, and black coloring. ( It’s a good article, you can learn more there!)

Most current calculations of nutritional quality in foods primarily look at major nutritional needs, like protein, energy (calories), vitamins, calcium, and fiber, with negative scores for high fat, saturated fat, and high sugar content. Dr. Drewnowski’s work adds the vital flavonoids to the calculations to develop new nutrition profiling tools.

The graph above focuses on fruits only–it’s a way of comparing your various fruit choices. “Fruit, fresh” (the large purple circle) includes fruits like apples, bananas, and peaches that aren’t berries or citrus. 

It shows the relationship of total flavonoids to the calories per 100 gram sample. (A cup of raspberries weighs about 125 grams, about the same as a large clementine and a cup of blackberries weighs about 145 grams.) 

You can see that berries are way up at the top with HIGH levels of total flavanoids and quite low calorie content. They have high nutrient density in comparison to their energy (calorie) density). Next highest in content of flavanoids are citrus fruit and dried fruit. Dried fruit, because of their low water content, have a lot more calories in the size of sample.  

If you’re curious, here’s another chart showing where berries stand in the more traditional nutrient scoring for protein, energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. 

Clearly, if you want to get a lot of nutritional bang  — especially when you are hungering for something sweet and not a leaf of kale — you clearly can’t do much better than berries.  As always, eat a variety of brightly and darkly colored fruits and vegetables — and be sure that raspberries and blackberries are among them, for both nutrition and sheer joy of flavor!