Photo by Swedish Embassy

Spring is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is the return of fresh ripe berries. I'm thrilled that starting this Wednesday, I'll be able to make a quick dash to the Rose Park Farmers Market each week to see what is waiting for me. Right now it's strawberries. Locally grown and picked at their peak, they are tender, sweet, juicy, and red-throughout. But they have a very short season, so get them while you can!

There are very few foods that match the beautiful color and intense flavor of berries. And, fortunately, these fruits are nutrition superstars.

For many years, most berries were regarded as nutritionally inferior because of their lack of traditional essential nutrients such as vitamins A and C. But that was before nutrition scientists recently discovered the presence of large amounts of beneficial phytochemicals ("phyto" is Greek for plant).

Apparently, each berry contains at least 100 nutrients and phytochemicals, the plant compounds with potent powers of healing. Some of the most important phytochemicals in berries are antioxidants, powerful substances believed to reduce inflammation, improve immune function and help prevent heart disease and cancers.

Antioxidants are compounds that absorb oxygen free radicals -- molecules that cause oxidation in the body's cells. Scientists believe that these molecules cause most of the diseases of aging, such as immune system decline, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and neurological impairments affecting cognition and balance.

Think of oxidation as being similar to rusting. Or imagine an apple slice turning brown. By simply adding lemon juice, an antioxidant, the apple's flesh stays fresh and prevents the browning or oxidation. A similar thing happens in your body. Oxidation is constantly occurring in your cells because of environmental pollutants, smoking, exposure to the sun, heat generated through basic metabolic functioning, unhealthy diets and other factors. It takes a large supply of antioxidants to counter this. Berries have been found to have one of the highest antioxidant scores of all fruits and vegetables.

But there are other good reasons to eat berries. The berry family contains 300 to 400 beneficial, disease-fighting chemicals. The phytochemicals in berries, depending on the type, also stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance cancer-fighting enzymes, positively influence hormone metabolism, have antibacterial and antiviral effects and may even reverse some aspects of brain aging.

The most potent berries are the more deeply colored varieties...

Learn more about berries, berry recipes, and ways of enjoying berries each day...

Strawberry and Spinach Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette (Photo by: California Strawberry Commission) Strawberry and Spinach Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

And don't forget about Asparagus, a favorite vegetable with a very short season, and another special item expected at Rose Park this Wednesday. Learn about asparagus and get six great asparagus recipes.

Salad of Asparagus and New Potato Topped with Poached Salmon (Photo by: Ali Eaves) Salad of Asparagus and New Potato Topped with Poached Salmon