We tend to think that the more delicious a food is, the less likely it is to be healthful and nourishing. While this idea holds true for sugar-laden processed and packaged foods, it’s good to remember that there are notable exceptions. For example, strawberries offer perfect proof that delicious foods (even sweet ones) can also offer incredible health benefits.
Researchers have now officially classified strawberries as a functional food, thanks to their “preventive and therapeutic health benefits.”
Functional foods (also known as nutriceuticals) are those which exhibit acute and quantifiable therapeutic properties beyond basic nutrition. Unlike the term “superfood,” which is as much a marketing gimmick as it is a verifiable label, the term “functional food” has been more widely adopted within the medical research community.
While many researchers would still like to see more stringently defined standards and data applied to functional foods, the term does carry weight—and it’s still noteworthy that strawberries have earned this distinction among researchers.
Let’s take a look at some of the specific reasons why strawberries are more than just a sweet summer treat.
High nutrient density. Strawberries are packed with beneficial nutrients, including antioxidants (strawberries have higher ORAC activity than raspberries or blackberries), healthful flavonoids such as quercetin, catechin, epicatechin, kaempferol, and ellagic acid, essential vitamins like vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin E, potassium, folate, and carotenoids, remarkable healing compounds called anthocyanins (which are responsible for their red color), and phytosterols.
Anti-inflammatory properties. The antioxidants and phenolic compounds in strawberries have powerful anti-inflammatory potential. Sure enough, one long-term study demonstrated that women who consume two or more servings of strawberries per week have significantly lower C-reactive protein (CRP), a primary marker for inflammation (as well as the many conditions to which chronic inflammation can lead).
Cardiovascular support. Inflammation and elevated CRP are strongly associated with cardiovascular issues, so it makes sense that strawberries would offer excellent support for the heart. One study found that just three servings of strawberries per week reduced the risk of heart attack in women by up to 33%, and another demonstrated that strawberry consumption was associated with a significant reduction in deaths from cardiovascular disease.
Improvement of other cardiovascular conditions and risk factors. The anthocyanins, polyphenols, and other beneficial compounds in strawberries have also been shown to improve common comorbidities of cardiovascular disease. For example, when reviewing data from the heart attack risk study cited above, researchers found that higher intake of strawberry anthocyanins led to an 8% reduction in hypertension.
Regular consumption of strawberries also lowers LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and raises HDL (“good” cholesterol), reduces oxidized cholesterol by increasing the body’s antioxidant capacity, and improves glucose response.
Brain support. Strawberries are even being hailed as a neuroprotective food. Researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that strawberry extracts improved and even reserved signs of age-related neuronal degeneration, and showed that animals eating a diet including 2% strawberries were protected against neuronal damage (as tested by exposure to radiation). These findings have excited many researchers into exploring the role strawberries can play in reversing neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Chemopreventive properties. Last but most certainly not least, studies suggest that strawberries display anti-cancer properties (they’re but one of many functional foods that are being explored as natural anti-cancer agents). One prospective cohort study showed that higher consumption of strawberries (especially when combined with other fresh fruits and vegetables) was associated with a significant reduction in cancer mortality, and other studies even suggest that strawberries can directly slow the growth of esophageal cancer.
How to get the most out of strawberries (all year round)
Whether fresh, frozen, dried, or made into jams and juices, it’s hard to go wrong with strawberries, as long as they’re organic. While all these forms have been shown to be beneficial, a deeper look reveals that processing can alter levels of beneficial nutrients.
Processing strawberries into jams and juices appears to affect their nutritional profile to the greatest degree, reducing levels of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), polyphenols, and total antioxidant capacity. It’s also worth noting that if refined sugar is added, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities of strawberries are further counteracted.
Canning strawberries is slightly better (especially if no sugar is added), but still has been shown to decrease levels of anthocyanins and phenolic compounds.
Frozen strawberries exhibit significantly higher levels of ascorbic acid and polyphenols than dried strawberries, and sometimes even higher than fresh strawberries.
While fresh strawberries are always a wise choice, they’re nearly always more expensive, and aren’t always in season. Luckily, most experts agree that frozen strawberries are a perfectly suitable substitute for year-round use.
Just remember that you must buy organic strawberries (whether fresh or frozen) to receive the benefits described above. Conventionally grown strawberries are sprayed with copious amounts of toxic pesticides—in fact, they’re the number one crop to avoid in the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen.