Tiny wild blueberries deliver big nutrition

Good things come in small packages. The same can be said of the tiny wild Maine blueberry being harvested this time of year on otherwise barren rocky fields. In fact, the land in northern Maine where these short scruffy bushes grow is referred to as “the barrens.” About one-third of the size of cultivated blueberries commonly sold in most supermarkets, Maine’s petite deep purple wild berries have been popping up on their own without human help for more than 10,000 years. “The plants are not fast growing but they’re long lasting,” says David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist and professor of horticulture at the University of Maine. “I eat my way through the fields and have wild blueberries with oatmeal for breakfast every day.”

To learn how wild blueberries are different from tame (that’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls cultivated blueberries), I joined a group of food bloggers for an educational farm-to-table tour.

At Havana restaurant in Bar Harbor, wild blueberries find their way into blueberry butter, blueberry vinaigrette sauce for scallops, and blueberry compote for goat cheese cheesecake. The bartenders at the Bar Harbor Inn shake up blueberry martinis and executive chef Louis Kiefer makes wild blueberry salsas. It’s easy to find blueberry pancakes and blueberry ice cream on just about every menu in town.

Yarborough explains that while blueberries grow wild in Maine, farmers manage their fields to control competing weeds to ensure a healthy crop. This year will be a banner year for wild blueberries because the weather was “honeybee friendly” during the critical pollination phase.

Big nutrition, small berry

Wild blueberries offer banner nutrition too. Because the berry is tiny, there’s more skin to flesh ratio so the fruit is twice as high in fiber and has higher levels of antioxidants as compared to bigger cultivated berries. Registered dietitian Kit Broihier, who works with the Wild Blueberry Association of America says, “Tiny is huge when it comes to nutrition. The wild blueberry has concentrated levels of nutrients that support eye, heart and brain health.”

While savoring fresh wild blueberries is an annual treat during harvest in Maine, the majority of the state’s crop heads straight to the freezer. “It’s nature’s pause button,” says Yarborough. Freezing maintains the color, shape and flavor of the fruit and creates a food product that’s available year round and worldwide. And studies show that freezing not only protects but actually increases the nutritional content of blueberries.

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Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com

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