Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all incredible fruits to add to your diet (and easily pop into a smoothie on a super busy morning). They contain fiber, antioxidants, and other important nutrients—meaning they're superstars when it comes to supporting your overall health. But there is one type of berry you may be missing out on. Meet: the bilberry.
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What are bilberries?
Related to the blueberry, bilberries (also known as huckleberries) are mostly native to Northern Europe—think Finland, Norway, and Sweden. "The shrub is local to this region, and the flavor profile of bilberries is very acidic. Bilberries are often referred to as European blueberries," explains sports nutritionist Kelly Jones, R.D. You can eat them fresh, dried in a powder, or as an extract—and they provide a ton of health benefits.
What are the main differences between bilberries and blueberries?
"Bilberries are much smaller and darker than their close relative, blueberries," says Abby Johnson, M.S., R.D. "One important distinction is that bilberries have about four times more antioxidants compared to blueberries."
She also notes that bilberries are completely blue from the inside out, in contrast to blueberries, which only contain blue pigment on their skin: "The inside flesh of a blueberry is actually white, light green, or yellow." In fact, this is why bilberries have a higher content of the antioxidant anthocyanin—another important distinguisher between the berries. Anthocyanins are the pigment found in dark blue foods like blueberries, blackberries, and black currants.
And then there's the taste. According to Johnson, bilberries also have a stronger flavor profile than blueberries do. "They are more acidic, which gives them a tart and sour taste," she adds.
What are some benefits of bilberries?
They contain antioxidants.
Bilberries are incredibly rich in antioxidants (most notably anthocyanins). Antioxidants work to fight free radical damage and keep our cells healthy, which could help promote long-term brain health, among other benefits.
"Bilberries are a good source of fiber, which is great for digestive health and blood sugar regulation," explains Johnson. "They are also rich in vitamins A, C, D, and K."
They could promote heart health.
In a small study of 36 people, researchers found that participants who consumed 150 grams of frozen stored bilberries three times a week for six weeks experienced a significant decrease in total cholesterol, LDL-C (your bad cholesterol), and triglycerides—along with an increase in HDL-C (your good cholesterol). These are all predictive factors for heart disease, suggesting that the consumption of bilberries can help keep your heart healthy.
They may help manage inflammation.
"These superfoods are particularly rich in anthocyanins, the particular compounds responsible for the rich blue pigment you see in bilberries," says Johnson. "Anthocyanins are considered to be anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory and play important roles in prevention and management of cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative decline, glycemic control, and eye health."
Jones adds that because anthocyanins and other polyphenols are supportive of healthy inflammatory responses, bilberries may help manage inflammation. "Poor inflammatory responses impact the heart, cognition, and mood, muscular function and recovery from exercise, nutrient metabolism and immune system function," she says, "so in theory, bilberries could indirectly support all of those functions."
They could help promote blood sugar balance.
Since bilberries are high in fiber and low in sugar (similar to blueberries), they may play an important role in keeping your blood sugar stable. "With one study showing benefits for blood sugar management in males, there is also promise for bilberry supplements to aid those with diabetes," says Jones.
How to add bilberries to your diet.
Fresh bilberries make perfect additions to smoothies, yogurt, mousse, or basically any dish that traditionally features blueberries. They're also delicious on their own as a healthy snack.
While bilberries are grown in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, they can be challenging to find in other parts of the United States. If this applies to you, here are some other options to consider.
"Using a freeze-dried bilberry powder offers the same benefits and can add just as much flavor to your recipes," explains Johnson. Simply add a tablespoon to your smoothie or oatmeal, or mix it into a plant-based milk.
"Turning to freeze-dried bilberries is an excellent alternative," adds Johnson. "Roughly 3 tablespoons of freeze-dried bilberries will give you the same amount of nutrients and antioxidants as a cup of fresh bilberries."
You may consider trying bilberry extract. "Essentially, an extract is a liquid solution of an herb or plant with an alcohol," explains Johnson. The alcohol is combined with the dried or fresh herbs or plants, and then the solid matter is removed—leaving only the oils mixed with the alcohol.
The main advantage of using extracts over the fruit is the phytochemicals (nutritive chemical compounds in the plant) bypass the need for digestion and can be easier for your body to absorb. You may also find bilberry extract is a more convenient way to experience the fruit's benefits.
Which is better—fresh bilberries or bilberry extract?
Whatever way you can get them—they're both pretty comparable, but bilberry extract may be easier to digest and can have more antioxidants per ounce than fresh bilberries. However, with the fresh bilberries, you're also getting a ton of fiber and water (thanks to the juice), which you won't get with bilberry extract or powder.
Still, it's important to note that fresh bilberries can be hard to find in certain regions of the U.S., so a powder or extract may be your best bet.
Bilberries are a nutritious and antioxidant-rich fruit that may offer a number of wonderful health benefits. If the fruit is challenging to find in your region, you may want to consider trying a powder or extract. However you choose to eat them, this mighty little berry is worth putting on your radar.
Nikhita Mahtani is an NYC-based freelance journalist covering primarily health and design. She graduated with an M.A in Magazine Journalism from New York University, and loves to debunk popular health myths. Her idea of wellness includes a sweaty spin class, wine with loved ones, and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. She's written for GQ, InStyle, Conde Nast Traveler, Food Network, Bon Appetit, and more.