The best protection against cosmic radiation might be as down-to-earth as a handful of berries. Cutting-edge research by the “Blueberry Man” James Joseph, PhD, and Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD, suggests that the polyphenols in blueberries and strawberries could someday protect astronauts against the radiation-induced free-radical damage experienced during extended space flight.

As Dr. Joseph explained in a previous DNN interview, “free radicals are very reactive molecules that like to bond with things.” While “bonding” sounds like a good thing — it’s not when free radicals bond so strongly that they carry crucial bits of your own molecular structure away with them. To explore ways to protect astronauts against such damage, researchers fed polyphenol-rich strawberries and blueberries to rats before simulating the radioactive conditions of space travel. The berry-fed rats weathered irradiation without experiencing the ill effects observed in the control group: tumor development, rapid aging, hair loss, and a severely shortened lifespan. In fact, the berry-fed irradiated rats fared as well as those that had not been irradiated at all.

Most berries — blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and cranberries — are high in anthocyanins, a category of the polyphenol chemical family.

Published November 1, 2007