Berries are among the healthiest foods you can possibly eat—and for many reasons, at that. They’re rich in fiber, as well as a host of antioxidants and other important micronutrients. Per researchers at Harvard University, people who include an abundance of berries in their diets appear to live longer, but they may also be able to keep their brains sharper while they’re at it, too. According to recent research, a key constituent in berries called pelargonidin may slow or help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and stave off cognitive decline (more on this later).
Keep reading as we dive into the specifics of this all-important, lesser-known compound. Plus: five of the best foods that contain this brain-boosting antioxidant, with berries and other plant-based goodies among them.
- Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist
What is pelargonidin?
“Pelargonidin is an anthocyanin compound, which is a type of plant pigment responsible for orange-red color hues,” begins Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York City. “It’s found in the subgroup of flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties.”
As a reminder, antioxidants function like tough and mighty bodyguards in the body, helping to bolster immune function and prevent damage from wear and tear from aging, environmental stress, and more. “Overall, antioxidants are known to help our bodies fight against free radicals and decrease oxidative stress which may lead to a decrease in heart disease, protect against certain cancers, and maintain immune health,” Gans explains.
The health benefits of pelargonidin
Pelargonidin holds the promise to benefit your overall health due to its general status as an antioxidant, as well as more specifically on account of its designation as an anthocyanin. “Anthocyanins are associated with the prevention of diseases connected to oxidative stress, such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases,” Gans shares. And according to a 2020 review in the medical journal Molecules, the beneficial properties of anthocyanins may be linked to their ability to modulate gut microbiota. Gans then cites a 2021 review in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, which found that berries in particular (which again are among the richest food sources of pelargonidin and antioxidants at large) "improved vascular function by reducing inflammation in the body.”
Even more recently (as we briefly mentioned earlier), a July 2022 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that prioritizing a higher intake of pelargonidin can be a worthy hack in your healthy aging, brain-boosting toolkit. As the study shares, post-mortem participants of the Rush Memory and Aging Project who had the highest levels of pelargonidin intake prior to their deaths had lowered numbers of twisted fibers inside the brain containing a protein called tau, as well as less buildup in the brain of amyloid beta plaques (protein fragments). In short, elevated amounts of these two constituents are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease—so the less of them there are, the more robust your cognitive health may be in advanced age.
In this study, strawberries were the primary source of pelargonidin—though they aren’t the only ones you can (and should) eat more of to keep your mind in tip-top shape now and for years to come.
5 foods rich in protective pelargonidin
For pro-aging, heart-healthy, and brain-boosting benefits, be sure to pin this RD-approved list of pelargonidin-rich foods for your next trip to the grocery store or farmer’s market.
Based on the last study shared above, it’s no surprise that strawberries made it to the top of this list. Though they’re a good source of pelargonidin, that’s certainly not all. “Strawberries are also rich in vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, which help the body fight free radicals and help maintain immune health,” Gans says.
Another tasty berry containing pelargonidin and with proven anti-inflammatory benefits, Gans says that they’re “also packed with compounds known as proanthocyanidins, which have natural antibacterial benefits.”
Berries aside, plums are another fruit packing pelargonidin for brain health. “Animal studies suggest that the polyphenols found in plum [juice] may help reduce cognitive decline,” Gans shares. If that’s not enough to convince you to eat (or drink) more of this low-sugar yet still sweet fruit, note that plums are also beneficial for everything from constipation to blood sugar balance.
Pivoting to veggies, Gans mentions that radishes also contain pelargonidin. “Besides being another good source of antioxidants, radishes also contain potassium, which may help control blood pressure and reduce the risk for cardiac arrest,” she adds. (As an extra beauty bonus, radishes just so happen to be one of the best foods for a healthy scalp and shiny hair, too.)
5. Kidney beans
To get a healthy dose of pelargonidin, plant-based protein, and more, Gans advises stocking up on kidney beans. “They’re also a good source of fiber, which may help to lower cholesterol levels and maintain blood sugar,” she explains.
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