Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Purdue Blueberry Research Could Benefit Local Businesses, Osteoporosis Sufferers

Philippa Willitts

Esther Prelock and her husband Matt have owned a blueberry farm southeast of Lafayette for 20 years.

They grow two types of the fruit on their farm and make their living letting people come pick blueberries for two-to-three weeks each summer. To the naked eye, all the plants look the same – even Esther can’t tell them apart.

“One is a little tarter flavor, one is a little sweeter," she says. "They both ripen at the same time and that’s why we have them together.”

But one thing she does know is that the number of blueberries she harvests isn’t the only thing that’s growing – so, too is the number of health-conscious customers her farm serves every year.

“We try and publish that kind of information on Facebook and on our web page. So we try and get that out to our customers. Although a lot of them are so conscious about healthy food that they’re on top of it and they’re the ones that give me the links. I think people are a lot more aware of that kind of information,” Prelock says.

A few weeks ago, Prelock learned of Connie Weaver’s research. Weaver is the head of Purdue’s department of nutrition science. She’s won a three-point-seven million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how blueberries might help postmenopausal women prevent diseases such as osteoporosis, which weaken bones. If Weaver’s research proves fruitful, she says alleviating bone loss might be just half the good news.

“Where nutrition plays a really important role is: osteoporosis, more than many other diseases, people are bad at complying with the medication,” Weaver says.

So if people can be convinced blueberries are helpful, they might also be convinced to pop a few of the tart, purple fruits earlier in life, so they have to pop fewer pills later in life. But first, Weaver and her team must learn what compounds in blueberries are beneficial. And that may take some time.

“We partnered with a blueberry genetics consortium that has 1,200 lines of blueberries. And they have profiled all the potential bioactive compounds in them, especially the pigments. So the pigments that make the color purple for blueberries is one possible candidate for its effectiveness that we’re going to pursue,” Weaver says.

And it wasn’t always clear blueberries were what she’d study. When trying to secure funding, researchers actually suggested other fruits first.

“We screened different kinds of fruits for the ability to protect against bone loss and I wrote grants on several of the promising ones. They didn’t like plum, they liked blueberries.”

And it’s okay with Esther Prelock that the scientific community has decided to back the humble berry that provides her livelihood. She says it’s unlikely the research will cause her to plant more of the crop, but the popularity of the fruit and the publicity it gets might keep people coming back.

“You know, it used to be the food that was really good for you was like carrots and broccoli. And that’s okay for some people, but a lot of people are not excited about eating carrots and broccoli. Blueberries, once you taste them, it’s pretty easy to eat them,” Prelock says.

The fruit appears to leave a good taste in the mouth of both business owners like Esther Prelock and grant funding organizations, too.

Related Content