Elderberries: Becoming Increasingly Popular, and For Good Reason!
Sierra Guay, MS, RD, CD
Elderberries are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the state of Vermont, where they are being cultivated for their culinary and medicinal properties.
The idea of using elderberries to promote good health is not new, as all parts of the elderberry shrub have been used historically for this purpose. Recently, researchers have been working to discover just what it is that makes these small, beautiful berries so special.
Elderberries, like other berries, are a good source of fiber and vitamins. It is the extraordinarily high anthocyanin content of elderberries that appears to be responsible for their many health benefits, and is what sets them apart from many other berries, including the well-liked blueberry. Anthocyanins are a subclass of plant phytochemicals, and are pigments that are responsible for the blue, purple, red, and orange colors of some fruits and vegetables. In plants, anthocyanins help attract pollinators, promote seed dispersal, and protect from environmental stressors such as ultraviolet radiation.
In humans, anthocyanins are obtained through the diet and are known to influence health in a variety of different ways. Researchers have published literature to suggest that anthocyanins may help decrease oxidative stress in the body, decrease insulin resistance, decrease the initiation and promotion of cancer, and improve bone mineral density. Several studies have been published that suggest that the anthocyanins in elderberries may help prevent and treat viral infections, such as the flu and the common cold.
Zakay-Rones et al. compared the ability of elderberry juice extract to treat the symptoms of the influenza virus in humans (1). In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, sixty participants who had been experiencing symptoms of the flu for less than 48 hours were treated with either 15 ml of elderberry syrup or a placebo for five days. Researchers found that participants who received elderberry extract experienced symptom relief on average four days sooner than those receiving the placebo. Additionally, participants who received the extract reported reduced intake of nasal spray and pain medications throughout the course of their illnesses (1).
In a study using mice, Kinoshita et al. studied the efficacy of elderberry juice in decreasing the amount of virus present and stimulating the immune response (2). When compared to Oseltamivir, an antiviral medication commonly used to treat infection by the influenza virus, elderberry juice concentrate given at 1 and 5 mg/day demonstrated less ability to decrease the amount of virus present, but was able to exert an immuno-stimulating effect that was not seen with Oseltamivir (2). Decreasing the amount of virus present while simultaneously stimulating the immune response is a characteristic not associated with modern medications used to treat infection by the influenza virus. We can begin to believe, therefore, that consuming elderberries may have benefits beyond that of using modern pharmaceuticals.
Some concern has been expressed regarding the safety of eating raw elderberries. The concern is that a compound in the berries’ seeds may cause stomach upset if eaten in excess. Though this concern has not been validated with scientific research, it may be worth heeding the advice to cook the berries before consuming them.
Elderberries have been widely distributed and can be found both in cultivated and wild landscapes in Vermont. If you find elderberries growing on your property, consider yourself lucky! Harvesting the berries can be a bit more labor intensive than harvesting blueberries, say, but the reward is a tasty and healthful treat!
In Vermont, we are lucky to have decent access to elderberries. It is not uncommon to find value-added products that include elderberries, such as infused honey or tea blends. A few Vermont-based companies have started producing syrups that might be taken to prevent or treat viral illnesses. located in Charlotte, is one such company. Another of our favorites is Immune Zoom by our friends at Urban Moonshine.
Christopher Chaisson, the founder of Wild Branch Foods, has been growing elderberries at his farm, Eleven Acre Farm, since 2007. These berries, which are used to make the elderberry syrups sold by Wild Branch Foods, are treated very well in growth and harvesting. In fact, Chaisson reports that the berries are allowed to grow for three years before harvesting, in order to allow the berries to mature and to ensure larger harvest yields.
It is important to know that the anthocyanin content of elderberries can be impacted by many factors, including plant access to water, soil quality, harvest time, post-harvest handling, storage, and processing techniques. When shopping for elderberry-containing products, look for those that have been minimally processed. Two tips to help ensure that you are purchasing a quality product and getting a good dose of anthocyanins are to (1) purchase products made with local elderberries and (2) purchase products with chunks. Purchasing products made with local elderberries assures the consumer that the berries have not had to endure long travel times, which would lead to a decrease in anthocyanin content. The presence of chunks in a product, say a syrup, may indicate that the product contains the skins of the berries, which are a good source of fiber and perhaps the best source of anthocyanins. Note that juicing the berries does eliminate many of their health benefits.
Chaisson describes his method of processing his elderberries as one that produces “[a] pulpy juice [that is] full of elderberry goodness and is a distinctive part of Wild Branch’s elderberry syrup”. After being harvested, the berries are pasteurized to ensure that safety standards are met, and are milled instead of juiced, allowing for retention of the berries’ skins. The resulting products are an excellent example of products made with local berries that will contain chunks, and will therefore have high anthocyanin content. Chaisson recommends enjoying elderberry syrup by itself, as a nutrition supplement, or as part of a mocktail or cocktail, where it can be blended with spring water, lime, or Vermont maple sap.
The prevalence of illness and chronic disease is on the rise, and subsequently, so are healthcare costs. The influenza virus impacts hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year. Despite the availability of the influenza vaccination, hospitalizations due to symptoms of the flu are on the rise. Currently, only a few medications have been approved for use in treating the symptoms of those infected with the virus, and those medications are subject to drug resistance. Additionally, several of these medications may not be appropriate for children, a population that is particularly susceptible to contracting the virus. It only makes sense to seek natural alternatives to modern medical treatment. Given the efficacy and low cost of elderberries, they are a potential alternative to modern influenza medications. Elderberries are a promising source of health benefits. So, the next time that you get that sinking feeling of an impending illness, do yourself a favor and think about skipping the pharmaceuticals and giving some local elderberries a try!
- Kinoshita E, Hayashi K, Katayama H, Hayashi T, Obata A. Anti-influenza virus effects of elderberry juice and its fractions. Biosci Biotech Bioch. 2012;76:1633-8.
- Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32:132-40.