Bilberry – the blue treasure of the Arctic forests

Bilberry – the blue treasure of the Arctic forests

Heli Koskinen

One of the best things our Nordic nature has to offer are our nutritious and delicious berries. Bilberries, lingonberries, cranberries, cloudberries and sea-buckthorn grow wild in our nature for anyone to pick and enjoy. Perhaps the most beloved of these berries is bilberry, also known as wild blueberry (‘mustikka’ in Finnish). And us Finns really love our bilberries: not only is bilberry picking a popular summertime activity for the young and the old, it is also a natural part of our daily diet, a must-have in our morning porridges and smoothies. In bilberry, a sweet yet fresh taste is combined with stellar nutritional benefits.

Bilberries are rooted in the Finnish way of life

Bilberry is nowadays probably more rooted in our culture than any other plant that our nature offers. This wasn’t always the case, though. In the olden days people were actually suspicious of dark berries and believed that the dark color was the result of a snake licking.

However, beliefs change as time passes and bilberry eventually became one of the most important berries used in folk medicine. Bilberry was used as a remedy for fever, diarrhea, inflammation, scurvy and dysentery. After the world wars bilberry started to gain even more appreciation as a source of nutrition. Nowadays the impressive health benefits of bilberries are widely recognized both nationally and internationally.

Traditional bilberry treats

Bilberries have been utilized in many different ways in Finland. Bilberries were preserved for winter for example by drying. The earliest form of the legendary bilberry pie was ‘mustikkapöperö’ (bilberry mush), which was made from bilberries and kama flour. Its cousin, ‘Mustikkamöllö’, was made from bilberries and rye flour. These could be prepared in the forest as a snack while picking the berries. Later on these evolved into the traditional bilberry treats, such as the bilberry pie and bilberry rye pie (= mustikkakukko or rättänä), still popular today. The bilberry pie most likely originates from Karelia, the birthplace of the Finnish pie-making tradition. These baked goods are still among the most popular Finnish desserts.

Bilberry pie

Bilberry pie – one of the most iconic Finnish desserts.

Bilberry picking – a strong tradition and a trendy hobby

Bilberries ripen in the Finnish forests from July onwards and their picking season is from mid-July to the beginning of September. Berry picking has long traditions in Finland, preceding the development of agriculture. The Finns have wanted to utilize nature’s givings especially during the poorer times, such as after the world wars. Even as our nation has become more urban and industrial over the decades, our innate desire of being close to nature and to live off the land has remained. We also live by the concept of everyman’s right in Finland which ensures that anyone can roam freely in nature and enjoy nature’s givings such as bilberries, regardless of who owns the land.

Bilberry picking is an essential activity at summer cottages where many Finns spend their summer vacations. Even the younger generation keeps the tradition alive. Young people head out from cities to forests to hunt bilberries in the summer. This is partially because of the increasing interest in a more health-conscious way of living and self-acquired foods.

Bilberries are an exceptional superfood

It's no news that berries contain lots of beneficial nutrients that are good for your health. It’s also no news that berries are widely recommended to be used daily. If you are planning to take one berry as a part of your daily diet, Nordic bilberry is a pretty awesome option.

Bilberries grown here up North are exceptionally dense in nutrition and intense in flavor. This is because the cold winter and short yet light summer provides a unique habitat for berries. The short summer season in the North is made up with the fact that it is also a season full of light: the longer the day, the faster and more intensely the bilberries grow. To give you a better idea of the amount of light we have in the summer, the length of day in Helsinki (the south of Finland) is 18 hours during midsummer whereas in northern Finland the sun doesn’t set at all, making the berries bathe in endless light. Therefore the bilberries grown in these Arctic conditions are much more nutritious than cultivated blueberries.

Bilberries contain plenty of vitamins C and E, dietary fiber and minerals. Bilberries are also rich in polyphenols which have an important role in maintaining health and preventing illnesses. The most important polyphenols are anthocyanins which the health effects of bilberries are believed to be based on in modern research. Anthocyanins are water-soluble flavonoids which protect the cells from the free radicals formed in the body. The blue flesh of the bilberry is full of anthocyanin which gives the berry its natural blue colour. To compare, the insides of the cultivated highbush blueberry is light and pale, which is a sign of the lack of anthocyanins.

Anthocyanins give bilberries their natural blue color

Anthocyanins give bilberries their natural blue color – good for health, bad for hands.

The many health effects of bilberries

The health effects of bilberries have been researched in Finland – internationally the research has focused more on highbush blueberries. As mentioned, lots of the health effects of bilberries are based on anthocyanins which contribute to the health of blood vessels, eyes, the heart and the brain. Research has shown that the more up North bilberries grow and the more daylight they are exposed to, the more anthocyanins they contain – which is why our Nordic bilberries are of particular interest in the science community.

Based on research, the regular usage of bilberries reduces low-grade chronic inflammation which is associated with many diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and many cancers.

Research has also indicated that bilberries could have a beneficial effect on eye health. Bilberries could for example improve the sight of patients with glaucoma and to reduce the symptoms of eye fatigue related to work with visual display units. These research results are not actually surprising considering the fact that pilots in WW2 relied on the effect of bilberries to improve their night vision.

While the results about the health benefits of bilberries are promising, more clinical research is needed. In the EU, no official health claims have been permitted to any berry, including bilberry.

How can bilberries be used?

Even if you are not that interested in the health buzz around bilberries, it is definitely worth it to include them in your diet just because they are simply delicious. Bilberries are low in calories so you can enjoy them as much as you want, but one deciliter a day is enough to fully reap their benefits.

Bilberries are incredibly versatile and practical to use in the kitchen and they can be added to sweet and salty dishes. Bilberries give the nutritional value of smoothies, porridge, muesli and yogurt an extra boost. In addition, they are a wonderful ingredient for breads, cakes, pies, buns and desserts such as kisel and particularly tasty when paired with cardamom.

Bilberries are always at their best when they are fresh. However, since the season for enjoying fresh bilberries is quite short in Finland, we have come up with many different ways to store them to be able to enjoy their benefits any time of the year. This makes it possible for you to also enjoy bilberries no matter where you live.

  • Frozen berries: The easiest way to preserve bilberries is to freeze them as whole berries. Frozen bilberries are a lovely addition to smoothies, morning porridge or baked treats such as muffins.
  • Berry powders: Another easy way to enjoy the benefits of blueberries are bilberry powders. Bilberry powders are prepared from whole dried berries by drying them at low temperature. This preserves the natural colors, flavors and nutrients of the berries. You can get the same health benefits from only one tablespoon of powder as one deciliter of bilberries has. Bilberry powders are also easy to add to almost any foods, they store well and they are safe for even the smallest members of the family.
  • Dried bilberries: Dried bilberries are very similar to berry powders when it comes to their usage and storage. Dried berries are also easy to use in cooking and baking and they are also a wonderful snack as such.
  • Jams: Bilberry jam and pancakes – what could be better than that? Bilberry jam is made by cooking bilberries, sugar and water. Sugar helps the jam to preserve better and it also keeps the vitamins preserved. Bilberry jam is an excellent addition to the diets of those who exercise a lot: it contains plenty of carbs necessary for training, in addition to vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
  • Juices: Juices are one of the most traditional ways to utilize bilberries and making your own juice from berries you picked yourself is a popular hobby here up North. Bilberry juice is made by boiling or steaming, with or without sugar. Ready-made juice is naturally also available in shops.

Since bilberry is also one of our favorite berries here at Arctic Pure, we have compiled a good selection of different kinds of bilberry products for you. You can find bilberry powders, dried bilberries, snack bars, chocolates, roasted flaxseeds with bilberries, cosmetics and even supplements with bilberries. Get to know the selection and find your favorite bilberry products!

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