Compounds found in a range of berries may soon help to treat cancer and slow the aging process. According to a new study, the magic resides in their naturally occurring pigments.

There is little more pleasing to the eye than a freshly plucked berry. Part of this beauty is thanks to their pigments, or anthocyanins.

Particularly prevalent in blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants, the antioxidant capabilities of anthocyanins have intrigued researchers for years.

Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid. Much of the work looking at their antioxidant action has, to date, been carried out in the laboratory rather than in animals.

Because of this, there is some debate about whether anthocyanins are easily absorbed in the body. After all, there is a substantial difference between introducing a compound to a cell in a petri dish and eating it.

Despite these concerns, there is growing evidence that anthocyanins may help to protect against some human diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Whether or not dietary blueberry improves mobility and cognition among older adults was determined. Mobility and cognition were compared at baseline and after 45 and 90 days of dietary intervention among men and women between the ages of 60 and 75 years. The participants were asked to consume freeze-dried blueberries (24 g/day [equivalent to 1 cup of fresh blueberries]) or a blueberry placebo for 90 days. Significantly fewer repetition errors in the California Verbal Learning test and reduced switch cost on a task-switching test were noted among participants in the blueberry group relative to controls. No improvement in gait or balance was observed. Overall, it was shown that some aspects of cognition can be improved by the addition of easily achievable quantities of blueberries to the diets of older adults.

Researchers have also investigated whether or not they might also help in the fight against cancer, and while some laboratory and animal studies have offered hope, observational studies in humans have not been so encouraging.

Recently, a team of researchers from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Eastern Finland teamed up with the National Institute on Aging in the United States.

They looked specifically at anthocyanins’ effects on an enzyme implicated in cancer and aging: sirtuin 6 (SIRT6). Their findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Sirtuins regulate the expression of genes involved in a number of cellular signaling pathways. As we age, sirtuin—like much of the rest of us—stops working as well, which can contribute to a variety of ills.

They found that one type of anthocyanin, known as cyanidin, could be of particular interest.

Found in wild bilberry, raspberry, and cranberry, cyanidin was shown to increase production of SIRT6 in cells by an impressive 55-fold. Similarly, it increased expression of the enzyme in colorectal cancer cells.

In other words, this compound appeared to reduce the activity of cancer-causing genes and boost the activity of cancer-stopping genes. So, eating berries each day may or may not improve your health and increase your lifespan but the evidence is starting to increase. We will have to patiently wait for scientists to untangle the increasingly complex web that anthocyanins weave and evaluate all their potential benefits. In short, there is a lot to learn about anthocyanins and how they impact human health. In the meantime I am going to enjoy my daily bowl of blueberries even more now.