Antioxidants in Vacciniums
& other fruits & veggies
"The nourishing of life, & how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries."
-C. S. Lewis
Virtually all berries & especially those with blue-black coloration have antioxidants that apparently protect the body from many ill effects of aging. These might or might not increase overall life expectancy, & might or might not have immediately measurable health effects; what is more certain is that a lifetime of including these berries in the diet helps preserve the quality of life toward the end.
There are scores of healthfood store herbal products that boast of their antioxidant value, when in reality these claims are based on (if anything) studies not of food supplements but of pharmaceutical grade extracts, & even those may not have a very strong likelihood of health benefit outside of a petry dish or high-dose animal modeled study. The assortment of stale herbs & extracts marketed to a gullible public rarely make health claims on their packaging, but in pamphlets, magazine articles, books, & from retail checkers' gossip, sales recommendations, lies, & allegations, many of these products are said to extend life & cure cancer & all sorts of other things, due to the antioxidants. In reality the vast majority of these products do nothing whatsoever (see the article on Ginkgo biloba for an example of the sad truth versus the sales pitches & baseless beliefs).
In the herb trade & among devotees of anything labeled alternative medicine, "antioxidant" has become a word similar to "abracadabra" which when spoken or printed in a pamphlet instantly confers the antioxidant value of fruits to pills & from pills to human life expectancy.
COMMENTARY ON A TYPICALHerbal hypochondriacs love to gobble down pills & if they have one bottle of pills in their house, they'll have twenty. They will never be satisfied with fresh or fresh-frozen bilberries or blueberries or with fruit juice or jams. It has to be a pill.
But the FDA & USDA do not require these products to meet a pharmaceutical standard. Independant lab testing has shown that the content of such products are sometimes contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury & lead, or with fungus that degrades the product; that it is hit & miss whether these products contain anything even close to the percentages of active ingredients claimed; that such products often contain entirely the wrong species of plant; & the products are warehoused or shelved for long periods with considerable degradation. So even if in theory a pharmaceutical grade extract might have been useful for something, there is little or no chance of acquiring such a product, & all that is consistent about what is offered to the public is its inconsistency.
And hooboy will these fake-medicine packagers & vendors lie to you. I will provide a running commentary on an actual sales-pitch found attached to a typical brand of bilberry extract capsules:
1) "In the years since the war numerous studies have been conducted on this herb." So far, true. But already they are implying it has some relationship to their product, which will invariably be untested for safety & efficacy. They don't actually say any studies apply to their product, but the implication is absolute; everyone buying & using the product believes it has undergone numerous studies when it has undergone none.
The ad quite oddly mentions "since the war," by which they do not mean the Gulf War or the SerboCroation War or the War of 1812, though they also do not mean the studies they would prefer are the most modern & best-designed. A poorly designed study from the 1960s, for instance, might have more promising results than better designed studies since the year 2000; in updated Health Sciences Libraries they would not even bother to keep the outdated papers on file, but to herb vendors a wacky old study is always preferrable to updated findings.
But the greater reason to reference "the war" is because the packager is hoping to remind you of some folklore about Second World War RAF pilots being able to see in the dark because they ate bilberries, which never actually happened. Other companies packaging bilberry extracts are more explicit in retelling that particular bit of folkore as the primary evidence for bilberry increasing visual acuity.
2) "These studies show that bilberry does indeed improve night vision." The science indeed proves nothing of the sort. Doubleblind placebo-controlled studies have disproven that bilberry improves night vision. This fool notion is based exclusively on urban folklore about RAF pilots being able to see in the dark because they had bilberry in their rations. This baseless fable has been widely circulated by herb promoters who, finding the science too often against them, prefer legends (see the separate article on Bilberries & the Myth of Night Vision for a full history of this particular fairy tale).
3) "One of the most encouraging studies holds that over 80% of the people taking bilberry for the first time improved on both their visual acuity exam & on a night vision test." The "80%" figure seems to have been snatched out of the herb-packager's arse. Several different bilberry extract distributors & packagers provide sales-pitch literature with some of these same stories in variant paraphrases, so they're all cribbing from one another without bothering with such niceties as actual sources.
If "one" such study exists it would be contradicted by all the rest. If the unusual study, uncited but alluded to, does actually existed, one wonders why the herb packager would refuse to cite the institute, author, date, or peer-reviewed publication. No such study makes these flat assertions, & the placebo-controlled doubleblind study conducted by Lt. Eric Muth, Ph.D., for the US Navy, found that no improvement of night vision occurs. The study, to quote it exactly, "failed to find an effect of bilberry on night vision acuity or night contrast sensitivity for a high dose of bilberry taken for a significant duration." That's the finding. So vendors who persist in advertising to the contrary are lying their asses off.
4) "Bilberry concentrate is prepared to specifically contain at least 25% anthocyanosides." Because the product is sold as a food supplement & not as a pharmaceutical, it is not required by law to meet the minimal requirements for a pharmaceutical grade extract. Because of the lack of federal regulations & standards for the manufacture of these products, they tend to be of poor & inconsistent quality, & it is not possible to obtain a predictable dosage from such products.
Furthermore, this claim to "contain at least 25% anthocyanosides" though it strongly implies that the bottle you are purchasing contains 25% anthocyanosides, it doesn't actually claim that because it isn't true. It says that whatever percentage of bilberry extract is in the bottle (a percentage which is not revealed) was originally prepared to be 25% anthocyanosides. That ingredient, before it reaches the user, is diluted with grape skin extract, so for all you can tell it may have less than 1% anthocyanosides.
5) "Anthocyanoside is one of the more effective antioxidants." Yes, anthocyanosides are excellent antioxidants which is why one should eat plenty of fruit & berries & fruit juices & unsweetened jams & jellies. It does not mean to pop more pills, not even if the quality of the pills & extracts were less wildly unpreditable than is the case.
6) "In fact, it is ranked higher in power than vitamins E & C." Which if true has nothing at all to do with the product being pitched. The claim of being better than vitamins would have to be given some sort of context to have even a faint possibility of meaning. Various antioxidants have various values throughout the body. Anthocyanoside may under some circumstances but not universally prove to be "higher in power," although that Alcoholics Anonymous style phrase intentionally has no medical meaning & plays instead to faith.
7) "In addition to finding that bilberry improves night vision, studies have also shown that it improves nearsightedness & overall visual acuity during the day as well." When they harp this much on the alleged value that is definitively disproven, you just know they don't care about what is true, & just want to reinforce popular delusions. It is widely but very incorrectly believed that bilberry assists macular degeneration, nearsightedness, & all sorts of eye problems, but it does not.
8) "Scientists believe that this improvement might be due to bilberry's effect on the blood supply." What a fabulously unscientific phrase. By "this improvement" they mean the disproven claim of improving vision or curing vision defects. What "scientists believe" would depend on what church they go to, but what they have proven in doubleblind studies is that bilberry does not improve vision. Yes, bilberries are healthy; the pills, probably not. Antioxidants do assist blood circulation which in turn should be very beneficial to overall health & the effects of aging on heart, mind, & body. Getting your antioxidants by eating plenty of fruits, including from the genus of Vacciniums, is a very, very, very good idea. Which has nothing to do with the product being pitched.
9) "Our bilberry extract is meticulously manufactured under strict quality control standards." Happily for them, but not for you, no law requires this be true, & "meticulous" could well mean the local health department didn't find too many rats in the bottling plant. By "our bilberry extract" they mean someone else's bilberry extract, because all the packagers get their ingredients in large drums to mix with other ingredients, but do not really do more than package, distribute, & promote products. These packagers have no direct authority over "quality control," a term they can define in any manner they desire. "Quality control" could for all we can judge mean very few rodent feces & cockroach particles end up in the bottles.
10) "It is extracted to provide an optimal level of 25% natural occurring anthocyanosides." This fib occurs twice in the sales pitch, in case you weren't convinced the first time they lied to you. Reality: The herbal industry is low-end in the marketing chain. The best harvests are sold as produce, or for use in food products, not for food supplements. Often only the skins rather than the whole fruit are used in the herb trade because skins are what are left over after the fruit juice & jelly factories are finished.
The buyer can never know if a purported berry-based extract is even made from fruit; being something of a "make use of waste product" sort of industry to start with, herb purveyers frequently draw their extracts & tinctures from leaves & twigs rather than from berries, & there'd be vastly more antioxide in a fruit roll-up from the candy store than a bottle from the healthfood store. Even the packagers & vendors themselves don't know precisely what is involved or included, since they are not the original manufacturer of the separately obtained ingredients.
Without an independent agency to investigate, any sales pitch claiming the highest standards of quality is just a sales pitch, which when turned over to an independent lab to find out for sure turns out scarsely ever to have been true.
11) "Additionally, it contains a full spectrum of components as they occur naturally in fresh whole bilberries." The product is in no way a substitutte for "fresh whole bilberries." No lab test exists for "a full spectrum" of alkaloids & flavinoids in fruits, which is why lab researchers are continuously finding new chemical components of interest. So this is a promise that can't be tested or proven, but they make it anyway, because they're at heart slight-of-hand artists whose industry has far less to do with human health than with flimflam. The only way to be certain of "a full spectrum of components as they occur naturally in whole bilberries" would be to eat whole bilberries.
12) "Red grape skin extract & Citrus bioflavonoids work synergistically to enhance the proven benefits of Bilberry Extract." It sure took a hell of a long time to admit the product isn't actually bilberry extract, but a mixture of waste-product grape skins obtained after they were squeezed dry at a higher level in the foodchain, plus an unspecified citrus content (lemon would be the cheapest, but they're unspecific so they can use whatever's on the market most cheaply in a given week). "Synergy" is one of the favorite catch-words of the herbal fan base, & vendors use the word whenever they wish to imply that adulterating a product is a good thing.
Bilberry being the more expensive food crop, would not be as profitably cost effective to sell as pure undiluted extract. But put a little of it in grape juice &/or lemon juice & sell it for the price of bilberry, woohoo! Unadulterated profit! It is doubtful that anyone buying this product, even if they read every bit of information carefully, quite realizes they are buying pills or extracts made of grape-skins & citrus.
And what the "proven benefits" are is left unspecified; the ones they claim, such as enhancement of night vision, are complete falsehoods.
13) "Potency guarantee: Bilberry fruit extract standardized to 25% anthocyanosides [and] Red Grape Skin Extract (vitis anthocyanidins) 50 mg. Citrus Bioflanonoid Complex 50 mg." What should be a statement of ingredients is misguidingly framed as some kind of guarantee, & they couldn't even fashion a complete sentence out of that bit of slight-of-hand. As an ingredient list rather than a guarantee, the three ingredients should be listed in order of amounts, though there's no reason to believe they are so listed. If bilberry happened to be the largest of three ingredients, that could mean it is 34% bilberry extract & 66% percent other. Since percentages aren't revealed by this company, however, it could well be primarily the world's cruddiest grape juice made from grape skins with scarsely an eyedropper drip of billberry. They've intentionally made it impossible to tell, & that's not apt to be because they're being so generous with the percentage.
And it could be worse than even a cynic would fear. A ConsumerLab analysis of another brand of Bilberry extract found that it had more milligrams of Docosohexoenoic Acid from tuna fish oil than it had bilberry. Vegetarians with herb fixations are quite often eating animal products & never know it, whether tuna oil posing as bilberry, or cow's feet for the gelatin capsules.
So this "guarantee" is useless on the face of it, as for all we can tell it only has 5% bilberry in it. What they are claiming (with no legal requirement to prove even this) is that 25% anthocyanoside is in the unrevealed percentage of bilberry. If that percentage of the ingredient can't be revealed, it's because it wouldn't be much of a sales point if you found out.
What if one wanted to call in this "guarantee"? Get your money back? Your ruined health back? Your dashed expectations restored? Personal apology from some organized crime godfather? The product could have as little as .1% anthocyanoside & still fulfill this poor excuse for a guarantee. Since they don't say what percentage of the ingredients is bilberry, even the most advanced lab testing could not assertain if the .1% anthocyanoside was or was not 25% before other ingredients were added. So there is really no way to take advantage of the fatuous "guarantee."
But if you didn't read all the way to the bottom of the advertising claims, you would probably still believe you bought bilberry extract rather than some small percentage of bilberry mixed with grape skin juice & citrus. Herbal products are more often than not the dregs of the commercial food chain that would otherwise have gone into the trash compactor.
Many packagers & vendors will not give us so much fake information to analyse, as they don't want to risk recommending a product for something that might get them sued. "Use as recommended by your health care professional" is the entirety of what another packager of the same bilberry product advises under the heading "Recommended use." By "health care professional" they are counting on your reliance on some herbal quack or retail check-out teller or shelf-stocker or herb-promoting pop-book, or someone whose expertise amounts to having studied wicca, or a really dumb article in a promo-magazine given out free at the check-out stand. There are so many ways to reinforce false beliefs that the packages these products come in don't have to promise anything whatsoever, so most promise very little, & deliver less.
When they do trespass into the territory of recommendations & alleged proven values, they will almost always, as in the text quoted above, be using as much doubletalk & insinuation as they can, so that lying can be denied even though most readers' understanding of the text would lead them to conclude the product being sold was 25% anthocyanoside when it was not, will enhance night vision though it never would, & when rechecking the precise letter of their wording, they can deny they said any of it could ever have applied to their product anyway.
Without federal regulation they don't even have to provide essential warnings about risks. Completely missing from the advertisement I commented upon, & which poses as medical or scientific reporting, is any warning that concentrated bilberry may worsen clotting disorders & should not be taken with blood thinning medications including common asperin, may be harmful to pregnant mothers, & should never be given to children (unfortunately, there are other companies selling mixtures of herbs including bilberry to treat attention deficit disorders in children; the product is not only worthless for the stated purpose, but the ingredients have never been assessed for safety for use by children).
Of course, if the vendor above quoted already knows the bilberry to grape juice ratio is very slight on the bilberry side, then they're on sound ground assuming risk is far too unimportant a factor to ever bother about contraindications, since its mainly grape juice after all.
The companies who sell this kind of swill have practically no regulations governing what they sell. I believe at least one federal law should be enacted for minimal protection of the public. Like cigarettes, these herbs too should have a warning label clearly marked as a "warning" with no doublespeak to make bad things look great. A concise unambiguous text should run something like this: "This product is a food supplement not a medication. This product has not been tested for safety or efficacy."
Anyone who is not gullible, unquestioning, superstitious, or stupid, already knows that herbal fads & folklore as filtered through the "food supplement" industry is 90% fraud & 10% confusion, rendering it difficult to believe the broad claims of the fantastical health values ascribed to bilberries.
But the idea of broadly healthful value for the antixoidants in fruits is largely factual. And if people who waste their money on indigestible "food supplements" devoid of the alleged health effects would, instead, eat plenty of fresh fruit, they would obtain legitimately much of what they thought they were getting from pills.
A 1999 article in The Journal of Neuroscience reported on animal-modeled studies conducted by Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD, at Tufts University, funded in part by the USDA. Funding sources are important to note; USDA funding would be less likely to introduce bias than, say, Blueberry Council funding, as the Blueberry Council would not renew funding if the findings were not pleasing to the Blueberry Council, & researchers whether intentionally or subconsiously are always influenced by the funding source.
In the Tufts University study, concentrated blueberry extract was added to the diet of male rats, & compared to rats who received the same overall diet but with strawberry extract instead of blueberries, with spinach extract instead of blueberries, & with a control group that had no supplemental extracts at all.
The four rat groups were tested for motor activity (walking on rods or planks), intelligence (solving mazes filled with water that they had to swim through), & their brains were also tested for key chemicals known to lessen with old age.
In their old age when rats began to decline, the rats receiving extracts of spinach & strawberry were doing better than those who received no supplements. But the rats in the blueberry group did best of all.
Of particular interest is the discovery that when supplements were started late in rat lives (rather than throughout life) only the rats in the blueberry group showed any reversal of loss of motor activity & cognitive decline associated with aging.
To restate this important point: all rats receiving fruit or vegetable supplements throughout their lives were benefited, but of those with supplements late in life, only those receiving blueberry extracts had reversals of age-related decline.
The theory is that antioxidant effects on the body (inclusive of heart & brain) are most accessible by the body when they originate in fruits.
Every fruit has its own chemical components with antioxidant potential, & it turns out those found in blueberries are among the most potent, though blueberries don't always come in at first-place in all studies.
A New Zealand study & a Japanese study both found that Black Currants (Ribes nigrum) ranked above Blueberries for antioxidant activity. A Michigan study found tart cherries, followed in descending order by raspberries, blackberries, & strawberries, were among the richest in anthocyanin, one of the more consequential antioxidants most easily absorbed by the body.
Different antioxidants are absorbed in different ways by the body, so a variety of fresh fruits & veggies is essential, not just blueberries.
Also, focusing too much on a single fruit source of antioxidants can too greatly increase the sugar intake, with negative consequences over a lifetime, although surprisingly antioxidant-rich russet potatoes cause greater insulin spiking than do blueberries.
A study (published in a 2002 issue of Nutrition & Cancer) conducted by Gary Stoner, PhD, at the Ohio State University Cancer Center, found Black Raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) outperformed blueberries in reducing the incidence of colon cancers, antioxidants "soaking up" free radicals associated with bodily decline.
In this study rats were given freeze-dried black raspberries, & compared to a group of rats receiving strawberries, a group receiving blueberries, & a group receiving no berries. Then the rats were injected with a chemical that induces colon cancer.
The three groups receiving fruit all had fewer incidents of tumors than the group without fruits, but by far the greatest protection against tumors was in the group receiving black raspberries, who had 80% fewer tumors.
This amazing finding is intriguing on two points: the greatly lowered incidence of tumors in the rats receiving black raspberries is certainly more impressive than a small statistical significance that might be exaggerated by herb-vendors; & actual fruits, rather than concentrated extracts, were sufficient to obtain this impressive response.
Unfortunately most of these effects were found only when the rats received very regular daily feedings of the fruits, in amounts that for a human equivalent would be four cups of the fruit every day. So eating a very few of these fruits at long intervals (as most of us do) would not be such a significant health benefit for rat or human.
Furthermore some sources of blueberries in the diet are fake -- frozen blueberry waffles or blueberry muffin mixes usually have blue-died apple bits & no actual blueberries, so some people may think they're eating blueberries when they're not getting any at all.
For this reason there is a fantasy-desire to find these antioxidants concentrated in pill form so that we can take one or two pills a day & get as much antioxidant as from four cups of fruit. No such pill or extract exists which packs that much into a small size. In the 1950s & 1960s at the beginning of the Space Age, people actually dreamed ofa future where you could take a small Chicken Casarole Pill, Meatloaf Sandwich Pill, or just add water & have apples or potatoes & gravy grow from the pills.
To some extent, today's belief that you can get the antioxidant nutrients of four cups of berries in one or two gel-capsules is a hold-over from the more retarded & ridiculous notions of an Atomic Future wherein the Jetsons don't even have to walk to get to the other side of their apartment, every movement or human need being automated.
The extracts sold in healthfood stores are rarely unadulterated (see commentary in side-bar) & the public does not have access to pharmaceutical grade extracts. If one could get pharmaceutical grade extracts not cut with other products, & if these contracts were, say, four times stronger than the whole fruit, even then that would require one to drink a whole cup of extract, rather than a couple small capsules.
On the other hand, if every time you went to the referigerator for a beer or a soda pop, you got fruit juice instead, you'd have a vastly increased daily intake of the requisit antioxidants, which are also available in a wide array of other foods.
Similar antioxidant actions are being discovered in increasing numbers of foods. Among vegetables, russet potato, artichokes, & beans are the highest ranking for absorbable antioxidant compounds. Among fruits, the highest rankings are in highbush cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpum), blueberries, blackberries, & berries generally. Also ranking highly were nuts (especially peacans, walnuts & hazels) & such spices as ground cloves, cinnamon, & oregano.
The highest ranking of all were small red beans, second highest were wild blueberries, third highest were red kidney beans, fourth was pinto beans, fifth were cultivated blueberries, sixth cranberries, seventh artichoke, eighth blackberry, ninth dried prune, tenth raspberry, eleventh strawberry. An Oslo study ranked walnuts, pomegranates, blueberries, blackberries, ginger, fruit & berry juices generally, green tea, kiwi fruits, tomatoes, spices, blue potatoes, blue broccoli, & red cabbage as high in antixodants. So you begin to see, it would be easy to get a healthy daily intake of antioxidants without seeking out magic pills that have little or no value beyond that of a placebo.
All these foods have easily absorbed natural antioxidant compounds which can lower the incidence of cancers, circulatory problems including heart disease, with some possibility of reducing incidents of alzheimers. People devoted to meat-based Atkins diets can be expected to live shorter lives & be more brain-addled in old age than people who always ate plenty of fruits & vegetables.
Wild blueberries (including almost any species, but the one usually tested is Vaccinium angustifolium, followed by V. myrtilloides, this latter being the same as called bilberries & most popular in herbal remedies of dubious value) rank highest for antioxidant effects; whereas cultivated blueberries (V. corymbosum, the highbush blueberry which is usually bought at the grocery) may fall to as low in ranking as fourth, which is still pretty darned high.
By no means have all Vaccinium species been tested, but enough have been tested to say pretty much certainly that any vaccinium species (blueberries, huckleberries, highbush cranberries) will have higher than average amounts of easily absorbed antioxidants.
Huckleberries of the Gaylussacia genus; raspberries & blackberries & other berries of the Rubus genus; & tart cherries aka pie cherries (Prunus cerasus), are all of high consequence for antioxidants. A variety of berries is better than focusing on, say, increasing the amount of blueberries in one's diet, as blueberries don't include everything significant in the antioxidant category.
The Tufts University research & others usually note that the antioxidant theory is still only a theory -- the best guess as to why certain foods from beans to blueberries seem to have a positive effect on human health & aging.
The bottom line seems to be all edible berries are good for their antioxidant activity, with blueberries & black currants & tart cherries quite a lot higher than the average. Studies have been done on concentrated extracts, freeze-dried fruits, & fresh or fresh-frozen fruits, & all show these same values.
In our Meat, Eggs, Bread & Pasta age, too few human diets include enough veggies & fruits to get the positive effects being discussed. Dried herbal supplements are way too trivial in their antioxidant potential to make up the difference. If dried fruits or fruit-roll-ups replaced candy intake; if more fruits were gotten into the diet by means of jellies & jams & fresh fruits; if some kind of berry could be included with almost every meal, a family would be well on the way to obtaining a maximum daily intake of antioxidants. Taking on the "hobbies" of baking berry cobblers, or seasonally canning berries as jams, jellies, & preserves for use later in the year, would more than do the trick.
One easy way to get people to "accidentally" take in enough berry concentrates without having to start a new hobby or force fresh fruit down everyone's throat would be if all soda pops & sweetened teas & other packaged drinks were not just colored sugar waters, but had berry concentrates as their main sweeteners or entire content. Since this isn't the case for most such products, a consumer will just have to make the health-conscious choice to purchase & bring home no soda pops or artificially flavored drinks ever again, but expose the family exclusively to fruit drinks.
If every time a family member got themselves a bottled or canned drink from the refrigerator it was real fruit juice rather than colored sugar water, they'd be getting much of their daily antioxidants requirement without a second thought.
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