In the late 1990s, researchers started publishing papers about the health benefits of blueberries, rating them No. 1 in antioxidants out of 40 fresh fruits and vegetables, partly because of anthocyanin, the pigment that gives the fruit its distinctive colour. Besides helping to neutralize elements that can cause cancer and other age-related and degenerative illnesses, the fruit has been credited with anti-inflammatory properties, improved urinary tract function and reduced eyestrain.
The berries contain vitamins C, A and E, potassium, calcium and magnesium. A 250-millilitre (one-cup) serving has 3.6 grams of dietary fibre, no fat and just about 80 calories.
The blueberry industry jumped all over these findings and its promotion of blueberries as health food made sales balloon.
Diane and Bill Parks have been growing blueberries on their farm, Parks Blueberries near Bothwell in southwestern Ontario, for more than 30 years and Diane Parks says they definitely noticed a change in the business when people started becoming more aware of the health benefits.
"Before that, we'd be trying to tell people how to use blueberries, how amazing they are as a fruit and what you could do with them. Then they started telling us."
The Parks have 16 hectares (40 acres) of highbush blueberries, including early, mid-season and, for the first time this year, late-blooming blueberries that they hope will extend the season to at least the middle of September. Picking started in earnest more than a week ago.
All of the blueberries produced on the farm are sold there, either as pick-your-own, or in the on-site store, which includes a café and bake shop "where we try to use blueberries in every way possible," Parks says.
Blueberry season in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, south of Vancouver, is also in full swing and on track to equal last year's record-breaking 43 million kilograms of fruit, all grown within a 60-kilometre circumference, says Debbie Etsell, executive director of the British Columbia Blueberry Council, based in Abbotsford. Their season could last until October.
B.C. is by far the biggest producer of highbush blueberries in Canada, with more than 800 growers and more than 8,100 hectares (20,000 acres) devoted to the fruit. Last year's crop made the area the largest highbush blueberry-growing region in the world. All of the fresh-market berries are hand-picked, Etsell says, while machines are used to harvest berries destined for processing.
While almost all the fresh blueberries sold in Canada are highbush, Canada is also the world's largest producer of lowbush or wild blueberries, mainly in Quebec and the four Atlantic provinces, says Agriculture Canada.
One difference between the two types is obvious from their names. The highbush plants were developed from the native lowbush species so the fruit would not be sitting on or low to the ground and would be easier to pick. Highbush plants grow to more than two metres tall.
Another difference is that highbush blueberries are a planted, cultivated crop. Wild blueberry growers do not plant them but instead manage wild stands that spread naturally by means of rhizomes or underground runners that produce shoots and stems.
Highbush blueberries are "larger and less perishable, which makes them highly suitable for shipping to retail markets," says Agriculture Canada. Wild blueberries are smaller and because stands of lowbush blueberries can have several distinct runner systems, the berries often are not uniform in colour or size. They generally don't mature until August.
The Wild Blueberry Association of North America, with offices in Old Town, Maine, and Upper Kingsclear, N.B., says wild blueberries are higher in antioxidants and because of their thicker skin, hold their shape, texture and colour through a variety of baking and manufacturing processes. Only a very small percentage of wild blueberries are sold as fresh berries. Most of the crop is used for processing and freezing.
But what about the big question: Which one tastes better? It depends who you ask.
"Wild blueberries have a more intense, sweet and tangy taste than cultivated blueberries," says the Wild Blueberry Association.
Etsell of the B.C. Blueberry Council is less definitive. "I believe it's sometimes a cultural thing, where you're born and eat blueberries from. There seems to be a mindset that one is sweeter than the other, but anytime we give highbush blueberries to consumers in the east, they're surprised that they're so sweet."