One way the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission tries to grab consumers attention and, one would hope, boost strawberry sales is by touting the health benefits of the berries.

By sponsoring research by respected scientists at some of the nation’s leading universities, the commission attracts attention from mainstream and scientific media as well as consumer Web sites and other information sources.

The commission began sponsoring research in 2003, said Chris Christian, vice president of marketing, and so far has invested more than $2 million into studying the health benefits of strawberries.

“We provide grants every year through a request-for-proposals process,” she said.

The commission currently is supporting several researchers, some on an ongoing basis and some new researchers.

Grant recipients are chosen by a committee (within the commission’s marketing committee) with the help of some outside scientific reviewers who help evaluate the proposals and determine whether they are focusing on the commission’s objectives.

“Our priority areas of focus are heart health, cognitive functions and general cognitive aging,” Christian said.

The commission wants to develop valid, consumer-relative messages focused on the health benefits of strawberries, she added.

One study, conducted by researchers at UCLA and entitled “Strawberry Consumption Is Associated with Increased Antioxidant Capacity in Serum,” recently was published in the Journal of Medicinal Food.

The study is important because although researchers talk a lot about the antioxidant levels of fruit, “just because a food has antioxidants doesn’t mean they are absorbable or available to us when we eat them,” Christian said.

“This study proves that the antioxidants in strawberries are bioavailable — or available to our bodies for use,” she said.

In the study, healthy women ate about a half-pound of strawberries daily for three weeks.

Researchers then looked at several measures of antioxidant capacity in the blood and determined that “eating strawberries resulted in an increased antioxidant capacity in the blood and also the body’s ability to prevent oxidation of blood lipids, such as LDL (or ‘bad’) cholesterol,” she said.

“That’s a common theme that is coming out of a lot of our research that focuses on the heart-health area,” she said. “Regular consumption of strawberries helps prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol.”

Elevated levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol are a primary risk factor for heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women and men, Christian said.

“Many of our studies are starting to identify the link between strawberries and heart health,” she said.

Another study by Britt Burton-Freeman, now at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

The study was conducted when Burton-Freeman was at the University of California at Davis and shows that strawberries reduce LDL oxidation and other “inflammatory markers” in overweight men and women in response to a high-fat meal.

For the study, overweight individuals, who are more at risk of developing heart disease than, were put on a strawberry diet.

The study showed that after eating a high-fat meal, “those on the strawberry diets had reduced inflammatory status,” Christian said. “Strawberries reduced both LDL oxidation and inflammation.”