Having a slice of berry pie: Hey, it's really a health thing

April 02, 2003|By Rob Kasper

TO SMARTEN up for an 8 a.m. telephone interview with Gary Stoner, a professor in the School of Public Health and director of the cancer-prevention laboratory at Ohio State University, I ate a handful of fresh blueberries and a slice of blackberry pie.

The blueberries were good for my brain, or so I had read. Moreover, the blackberry pie was loaded with anthocyanin pigments, antioxidants, ellagic acid and other substances that, according to research, inhibit some cancers and soak up those pesky free radicals that contribute to heart disease, decreased brain functioning and bad skin.

All the downers of aging fought off by eating a slice of pie topped with whipped cream. That was a health regime I could live with.

When I explained this pie-for-breakfast approach to good health to Stoner, he laughed. He is a well-known researcher who for some 20 years has been investigating the health effects of eating berries.

While Stoner was avuncular, he was also careful. He did not make broad claims of the benefits of eating berries. Instead, he cautiously summarized what he thinks he knows so far.

Despite my attempt to fire up my brain by eating blueberries - a tactic that apparently made some rats at Tufts University smarter - I was a little slow on the uptake. Some of Stoner's detailed explanations of his research sailed in one ear and out the other, roughly paralleling, I learned later, the way berry seeds sail through our bodies.

My surmise of Stoner's work was that after years of research getting promising cancer-fighting results from laboratory animals that had been fed berries, human trials were starting up. In particular, Stoner and his colleagues want to look at the effect that eating controlled amount of berries has on inhibiting pre-cancerous lesions where the esophagus meets the stomach, and on colon polyps.

That was enough detail for me. All I was after was another excuse to eat blackberry pie.

Being a true man of science, Stoner pointed out that other researchers, such as Dr. Paul Talalay at the Johns Hopkins University, had already shown that eating broccoli and broccoli sprouts helped to prevent certain types of cancer.

But being a hedonist, I confess that while I know I should eat both, I would much rather eat berries than broccoli, especially for breakfast.

I was discouraged to learn that while all shades of berries - the red, the purple and the blue - deliver some health benefits, the ones that pack the most nutritional wallop are the darker, tarter berries.

As I was making the blackberry pie, I popped one of the fresh blackberries in my mouth. It was fruity and juicy, but far from sweet. It almost tasted like medicine.

The flavor was helped considerably by the cup of sugar that the recipe called for. I got the pie recipe from the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission. Oregon is the caneberry center of the universe. Caneberries are berries, like raspberries and blackberries, that grow on long canes rather than on bushes of ground plants. The recipe called for the marionberry, which is a type of blackberry native to Oregon. But I couldn't find fresh marionberries, so I substituted fresh blackberries from Mexico.

Later Dan Brophy, a chef and instructor at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., told me that marionberries had a more complex and better flavor than most blackberries. But he acknowledged they could be hard to find on the East Coast. Last month, for instance, when Brophy and a number of other chefs from the Northwest traveled to Baltimore for a weekend culinary event at the Harbor Court Hotel, the chefs brought marionberries with them.

The Mexican blackberries I bought at Whole Foods Market in Mount Washington were expensive, $3.49 for a container that held about 1 cup of fruit. I guess good health and good pie come at a price. In this case, 4 cups of blackberries cost about $14.

The blackberry pie, with its homemade (shortening-based) crust, was gorgeous. But it needed some sweetening. The recipe suggested a topping of homemade berry ice cream. I substituted my favorite pie topping - whipped cream flavored with vanilla and sugar.

The result was delicious. The tang of blackberries was complemented by the sweet whipped-cream topping and the flaky crust.

While the blackberries were loaded with anti-carcinogens and antioxidants, the sugar and whipped cream added a fistful of calories and fat.

So while I would like to think of my blackberry pie as health food, if pushed by nutritionists, I probably would have to label it a "mental-health" dish.

One more thing: Stoner told me that until the human trials are completed, no one knows for certain how many berries constitute a "protective dose." But the data from animal experiments indicate that it could be as high as a pound or two of berries per day.

If that turns out to be true, I would have to eat an entire pie. Once again, that is a concept of nutrition I could dig into.

Marionberry Pie

Serves 8 to 10

baked 9-inch pie shell

5 cups frozen marionberries (or blackberries), divided use

4 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Crush 2 1/2 cups of the berries with a fork or pastry blender; stir in cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice. (Return remaining berries to freezer.) Cook berry-cornstarch mixture over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is clear and is thick enough to hold a plastic spoon straight up in center, 4 to 6 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool mixture completely in refrigerator, stirring occasionally. Remove remaining berries from freezer and gently fold into cooked, cooled berries. Turn into crust. Refrigerate until well chilled. Serve with ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.

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