Blueberry – Photo: Senwes

A Scottish farmer is giving away his entire crop of blueberries, worth £2 million (R42 million) to charity, saying cheap imports and high labour costs have made harvesting the fruit economically unviable.

Peter Thomson has been growing blueberries at his farm in northeast Scotland for more than four decades, producing 300 tonnes of fruit per year. But now he says growers in Peru and South Africa can sell their berries in the UK at a far lower price than he can. A Brexit-related shortage of pickers has made harvesting the crop unviable.


Blueberries have been part of American diets for more years than I can remember. They are included in a vast array of confections, like muffins, pancakes, cookies, deserts – too many to recall.

So why am I writing about the woes of a farmer in Scotland and his South Africa “connection”? Blueberries are not even indigenous to South Africa. However, we do have a flourishing blueberry farm right here in the Valley. Blueberries are also a member of the botanical family ERICACEAE – and we have more members of the Erica genus of that family than anywhere else in the world.

Blueberries have become a hugely popular fruit all over the world.

For centuries, people only grew and harvested blueberries in small numbers. However, at the turn of the 20th century, they began to be cultivated commercially in large quantities and brought to the international markets.

Blueberries are now the fastest-growing horticultural product in South Africa and this industry has created more than 5,000 full-time jobs over the past five years. Within the South African berry family, blueberry production is the largest, occupying about 74% of the entire planted area. Naturally acid soils in the Western Cape are ideal for growing this fruit.

Blueberries are claimed to have many health benefits. Let’s look at these claims.

Health claims

Blueberries contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that provide notable health benefits. For example, they are rich in vitamin K, which plays an important role in promoting heart health – it is also important for bone health and blood clotting. Blueberries are also a natural source of antioxidants. While antioxidants aren’t necessary for your body to function, they are said to help protect your body from damage by free radicals. Your cells produce free radicals as waste products, but these particles can go on to damage other cells.

High cholesterol is dangerous for your heart because it can build up in your arteries. Cholesterol that builds up eventually gets oxidized, and if this happens in large amounts it damages your body. Antioxidants in blueberries help prevent cholesterol in your blood from being oxidized and may even prevent cholesterol from building up in the first place.

Eating blueberries regularly can help reduce high blood pressure and protect cardiovascular health. The current hypothesis is that blueberries help the body produce more nitric oxide, which reduces blood pressure inside blood vessels and helps with smooth muscle relaxation.

Blueberries can help people with Type 2 diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels better. Studies have shown that eating blueberries regularly can help improve insulin sensitivity and can also help reduce fasting blood sugar levels by nearly a third.

How much of this hype is true? What do the experts say?

Quote from Harvard Medical School

“Some vitamins and minerals — including vitamins C and E and the minerals copper, zinc, and selenium — serve as antioxidants, in addition to other vital roles.

“Antioxidant” is a general term for any compound that can counteract unstable molecules called free radicals that damage DNA, cell membranes, and other parts of cells. Because free radicals lack a full complement of electrons, they steal electrons from other molecules and damage those molecules in the process. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons. In making this sacrifice, they act as a natural “off” switch for the free radicals. This helps break a chain reaction that can affect other molecules in the cell and other cells in the body. But it is important to recognize that the term “antioxidant” reflects a chemical property rather than a specific nutritional property.

While free radicals are damaging by their very nature, they are an inescapable part of life. The body generates free radicals in response to environmental insults, such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet rays, and air pollution, but they are also a natural by- product of normal processes in cells. When the immune system musters to fight intruders, for example, the oxygen it uses spins off an army of free radicals that destroy viruses, bacteria, and damaged body cells in an oxidative burst. Some normal production of free radicals also occurs during exercise. This appears to be necessary in order to induce some of the beneficial effects of regular physical activity, such as sensitizing your muscle cells to insulin.

Because free radicals are so pervasive, you need an adequate supply of antioxidants to disarm them. Your body’s cells naturally produce some powerful antioxidants, such as alpha lipoic acid and glutathione. The foods you eat supply other antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E. Plants are full of compounds known as phytochemicals—literally, “plant chemicals”—many of which seem to have antioxidant properties as well. For example, after vitamin C has “quenched” a free radical by donating electrons to it, a phytochemical called hesperidin (found in oranges and other citrus fruits) restores the vitamin C to its active antioxidant form. Carotenoids (such as lycopene in tomatoes and lutein in kale) and flavonoids (such as flavanols in cocoa, anthocyanins in blueberries, quercetin in apples and onions, and catechins in green tea) are also antioxidants.”

Does this mean we could benefit from taking antioxidant supplements?

Be careful of claims by commercial interests

News articles, advertisements, and food labels often tout antioxidant benefits such as slowing aging, fending off heart disease, improving flagging vision, and curbing cancer.

Indeed, laboratory studies and many large-scale observational studies have noted antioxidant benefits from diets rich in them, particularly those coming from a broad range of colourful vegetables and fruits.

However, results from randomized controlled trials of antioxidant supplements (in which people are assigned to take specific nutrient supplements or a placebo) have not supported many of these claims. Indeed, too much of these antioxidant supplements won’t help you and may even harm you.

So redirect your purchasing pattern from supplements to healthy food. It is better to derive your antioxidants from a well-rounded diet of fruits and vegetables, rather than artificial supplements. Whether that diet includes blueberries is up to you.