By TIM HEARDEN
WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- A commodity group here is celebrating National Strawberry Month by touting the nutritional benefits and growing popularity of the red fruit.
The California Strawberry Commission is calling attention to current and ongoing research suggesting that making the berries a daily part of a person's diet may improve heart health, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of some cancers and support cognitive function.
Researchers from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma's Health Sciences Center recently concluded that strawberries are a "functional food" that can help manage disease and promote health and wellness, the commission notes on its website.
The scientists reviewed studies on the nutritional benefits of strawberries from the last decade and published their findings in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition in February.
And nutrition expert David Grotto includes strawberries on the list of best fruits in his book, "The Best Things You Can Eat." He calls strawberries a "super fruit" because they deliver exceptional nutrition per calorie and are available in stores year-round.
The commission is highlighting the health benefits of strawberries as the USDA reports that Americans now eat twice as many berries as consumers did two decades ago. U.S. strawberry utilization neared 2.9 billion pounds in 2011 compared to less than 1.4 billion pounds in 1991, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The commission notes that per capita strawberry consumption rose to nearly 8 pounds last year, and officials credit refined growing methods on California's 40,192 acres of strawberry fields that have improved yields by 44 percent since 1990.
Strawberry producers in the Golden State have enjoyed six record-breaking seasons in the past seven years, and production is on a pace to set another record this year. Strawberries are a year-round fruit in California as winter harvests move south with the sun, and nearly 90 percent of U.S.-grown fresh strawberries come from the state.
Among the specific health benefits the commission is highlighting:
* A serving of eight medium-sized strawberries has more vitamin C than an orange and contains only 45 calories and 7 grams of sugar, according to the USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
* The American Diabetes Association identifies strawberries and other berries among its top 10 "super foods" because of their abundance of vitamins, antioxidants and dietary fiber.
* Eating strawberries more than twice a week appears to delay cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years, according to a study in the July 2012 issue of Annals of Neurology.
California Strawberry Commission: http://californiastrawberries.com/