MIREILLE BLACKE, MA, RD, CD-N
“Let me take you down, ‘Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever.”
-The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967)
For most of my life, Victorian homes conjured images of secluded and lush gardens full of roses, lilacs, butterfly bushes, irises, and excessively flowering plants where a person could wander, get lost in thoughts among the blossoms, and take a bit of a break from the world.
Since owning a Victorian home, however, I can state that those postcard-worthy notions are all well and good, but trying to maintain gardens like those, without a staff, in reality is as unlikely as snow in July. During recent arduous weeding, I unearthed a surprise: a dormant strawberry patch.
Other than garden-avoidant types or allergy sufferers, many people would be pleasantly surprised by such a discovery? But I was a bit taken aback for a different reason. In childhood, my bright red hair, along with the coincidental popularity of certain cartoon characters, provoked the nickname of “Strawberry Shortcake” (thank you, American Greetings). At times, I held a considerable grudge against strawberries, loathing both my hair color and the fruit that some that some thought represented it. As an adult, and a Registered Dietitian (RD) to boot, I know the health benefits of the strawberry. So with the newly exposed strawberry leaves staring me in the grimy-gardening face, I realized it was time to grow up and get over it.
Strawberries belong to the rose (Rosaceae) family, along with apples and plums. Highly adaptable, strawberries are native to both northern and southern hemispheres, and are grown in every U.S. state, every province in Canada, and across Europe and Australia. Within the United States, California and Florida are the biggest suppliers, with California producing more than 80% of the strawberries grown in the United States.
The strawberry does not fit the botanical definition of an actual fruit or berry (which has seeds on the inside); each external strawberry seed is an ovary of the flower. An “aggregate accessory fruit,” the strawberry’s flesh is derived from the receptacle part of the plant that holds the ovaries. With an average of 200 seeds, the strawberry is the only “fruit” to display its seeds on the outside.
One cup of unsweetened strawberries provides 50 calories and three grams of fiber, making strawberries a filling, low-calorie snack option. Strawberries have no saturated fat or cholesterol, and are low in sodium. Strawberries are also a good source of vitamin C, folic acid, potassium, and manganese. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant in the body, helping to boost immunity and fight infection, counter inflammation, prevent heart disease, and protect against cancer. B-complex vitamins (such as folic acid) in strawberries help the body with carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism. Potassium is a mineral involved in the body’s cell and body fluid regulation, heart rate control, and blood pressure stability. The mineral manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for enzymes needed in fat and protein metabolism, and antioxidant utilization. Strawberries rank in the top fruits with regard to antioxidant content (others include blueberries, cherries, and raspberries).
Why should you care about antioxidants in strawberries? Simply stated, antioxidants and proanthocyanidins (powerful and health-promoting plant compounds) offer protection against degenerative diseases, cancer, heart disease, inflammation, and diabetes. Specifically, ellagic acid in strawberries is anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic, which means it promotes apoptosis (cellular death) of cancer cells without changing healthy, normal cells. Ellagic acid has been shown to inhibit steps in tumor initiation liver cancer cells and protect against cervical and breast cancers. Other compounds in strawberries have also been shown to improve brain function and memory, decrease macular degeneration, and prompt increased short-term memory, faster learning, and increased motor skills. Strawberries also contain fisetin, which possesses antioxidant properties against Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes-related kidney failure.
Strawberries are popularly found in cakes, pies, and traditional desserts like Strawberry Shortcake (find a healthier version on the Mayo Clinic’s site), in fruit and green salads, as toppings, as preserves, or simply eaten raw. For dessert, serve strawberries over frozen yogurt with some heart-healthy walnuts, sliced almonds, or macadamia nuts. Consider soaking strawberries in balsamic vinegar and black pepper to jazz up green or fruit salad, ice cream, or low-calorie angel food cake.
Be advised it’s not all roses and shortcake with the strawberry. In some individuals, the consumption of strawberries may provoke a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction, and others may experience the less lethal but still distressing Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS), involving hives, dermatitis, swelling and redness of the mouth, lips, and tongue, eczema, headache, runny nose, wheezing, gastrointestinal distress, hyperactivity, and insomnia. OAS (aka Pollen-Food Allergy) is a result of cross-reactivity between tree or pollen remnants in certain fruits and vegetables. Because allergies can develop at any time in life, and many people become accustomed to symptoms over time, consult with a specialist if you suspect a food allergy or sensitivity.
Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):
- Rah-rah raw. To get the most nutrients from your strawberries, eat them raw. Assure ripeness by avoiding those with green or white tips. Strawberries absorb high levels of pesticides when grown conventionally. According to the Environmental Working Group, strawberries are the second highest of pesticide-laden and most consistently contaminated fruits and vegetables. Translation: splurge for organic strawberries.
- Scratch that itch. Individuals with an allergy to strawberries or OAS may experience symptoms ranging from acute anaphylaxis to simple dermatitis. If you exhibit physical reactions after ingesting strawberries, consult with your healthcare professional to assess your food allergy or sensitivity status.
- Be berry gentle. Eight medium-sized strawberries equal one serving. Handle those with care; heating, capping, injuring, cutting, or juicing strawberries will reduce the strawberry’s vitamin content.
- Strive for five. The average adult requires 1 ½ – 2 cups of fruit per day, according to the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines (this site will also help you determine your daily nutritional needs). Cover half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. Add strawberries for color and variety in your diet and also reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and numerous other conditions. Strawberries are a great addition to green or fruit salads, as a between-meal snack, or added to muffins, pies, cakes, dry cereals, and dairy (ice cream, milkshakes, smoothies, and yogurts).
WWhile time has faded both cartoon associations with strawberry-colored hair and the vibrancy of my own locks, I now embrace strawberries for their role as a vital source of health-promoting nutrients as well as vivid ornaments landscaping my Victorian garden. The red-headed child within this Registered Dietitian is contented, at least for now