Strawberries are high on a select list of super-healthy foods that virtually everyone likes. And listen up — now comes news that they are much more important to our health than previously thought. A new study done at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center on freeze-dried strawberries and precancerous esophageal lesions found that the berries were extremely effective in slowing the development of those lesions.

Anything that helps the fight against esophageal cancer is very welcome news. Not only have the number of cases been growing, it’s also a very deadly cancer.

Berries Bring Reversals

The research (which was sponsored by the California Strawberry Commission) was done in China, where the incidence of esophageal cancer — the type known as squamous cell carcinoma — is extremely high. Americans more typically suffer from a different type of esophageal cancer, known as adenocarcinoma. Lead researcher Tong Chen, MD, PhD, assistant professor in medical oncology at Ohio State, told us that strawberries may similarly affect the type of cancer common in the West because they impact some genes common to both types.

The study had 36 participants, average age 54, all of whom had precancerous lesions of the esophagus. Dr. Chen said that such precancerous lesions are graded mild or moderate (severe ones are clinically considered cancer) and that eventually about 25% of patients with mild lesions and 50% of those with moderate lesions progress to cancer. However, in her study, in which each participant ate about two ounces of freeze-dried strawberries a day, 29 of the 36 participants — about 80% — experienced at least some reversal of lesion progress, with some moderate lesions becoming mild and some mild ones reverting to normal. Dr. Chen said, “Our study is important because it shows that strawberries may be an alternative to — or may work together with — chemopreventive drugs to help stop esophageal cancer. But we will need to test this in randomized placebo-controlled trials in the future.”

Big Power in a Little Berry

As a cancer fighter, strawberries have a powerful combination of molecular components, says Dr. Chen. They contain antioxidant polyphenols, of course, and also vitamins A, C and E, folic acid, calcium, selenium and zinc. As she points out, you can buy all of these in supplemental form, but in strawberries there seems to be a synergistic effect among the components that makes them more potent than the individual components are on their own. Freeze-drying the fruit takes it to an even more impressive level as a nutrient powerhouse — this process removes water from the fruit, leaving a much denser nutritional content within. In the case of strawberries, which are 90% water, when freeze-dried, the end product is 10 times more nutritious than the equivalent weight of fresh berries.

Freeze-dried strawberries are widely available now in supermarkets and health-food stores. This is one rare case in which a processed version of a food might be more healthful than the natural version — probably because freeze-drying takes out only water and adds no flavorings or sugar. As to whether eating strawberries can prevent esophageal cancer in people who don’t already have lesions, the potential is just too exciting.

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