Delicate strawberries may require gentle handling in the kitchen, but the little red fruits can toughen up the immune system and even protect the heart.

“You hear a lot about certain fruits that provide a significant source of antioxidants, that help to reduce the production of free radicals and prevent them from hurting your body,” said Carla Haley, Miller County extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “One fruit that seems to miss the list is strawberries.”

Strawberries are full of antioxidants and vitamin C, both of which are excellent for fighting free radicals. Strawberries can help prevent heart disease, macular degeneration, diabetes, and even cancer.

One cup of unsweetened strawberries contains 140 percent of the reference daily intake of vitamin C, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Vitamin C helps protect skin from bruising, helps heal cuts and keeps gums healthy.

“Eating foods with vitamin C has the additional benefit of helping the body absorb iron,” she said. “Strawberries also provide potassium and fiber. Potassium helps maintain healthy blood pressure, and fiber helps control cholesterol and keeps you regular.”

One cup of sliced raw strawberries has only 45 calories and no fat.

Arkansans were able to get an early start on strawberries this year, with some farmers offering fresh-from-the-vine fruits in early April. (see http://uaex.edu/news/april2012/0411ArkEarlyStrawberries.html)  Many of the vines are still producing into June. Look for berries at the local farmers market or road side stand.

Choose firm, brightly colored, fully ripe berries with a natural shine, rich red color and bright green caps. Avoid soft or dark colored berries as they are bruised or overripe.

“Store in the refrigerator and use within two to three days,” Haley said. “If held longer, a gray mold may develop.” 

Store berries no more than two berries deep in a shallow container or tray covered with waxed paper or plastic wrap. Always remove bruised, rotted or molded berries before storing. Refrigerate immediately after purchasing. Never rinse the berries or remove the caps before storing. Removing the cap early can reduce flavor, texture and nutrient quality.

Including strawberries in your diet is easy:

  • When strawberries are ripe, enjoy them as they are.
  • Dip whole, rinsed strawberries into melted semisweet chocolate and chill
  • Spin them into a milkshake with ice cream or with honey and vanilla yogurt for a smoothie
  • Top toasted frozen pancakes or waffles with sliced strawberries and your favorite syrup
  • Stir finely chopped berries into softened low-fat cream cheese and spread on bagels or toast.