Few fruits have a longer or more colorful history than elderberries. With use going back at least 4,000 years, elderberries have woven their way into the histories and myths of countless cultures. Even today they remain an important part of folk medicine and are often included in dietary supplements for the treatment of cold and flu symptoms. But these red, dark purple, and black berries are much more than that. In fact, you might say they’re the yin and yang of fruits.
What do we mean by that? Read on to find out.
A Brief History of Elderberries
Elderberries belong to the genus Sambucus, which contains between 10 and 30 species (depending on how they’re classified) of subtropical and temperate trees and shrubs distributed across the world.
While the berries of many species of elder trees and shrubs are used by humans, the most common species are:
- European elderberry (Sambucus nigra): This elderberry species has black berries that are slightly larger than its cousin, the American elderberry. Known as the “medicine chest of country people,” the European elderberry plant has a long history of use, with its stems, leaves, white flowers, berries, and roots all playing a role in traditional medicine. In addition, the ripe berries are used to make elderberry juice, jam, and elderberry wine, while elderberry flowers are added to salads, used to flavor gooseberry jam, or brewed as a tea.
- American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): The American elderberry is similar in both appearance and use to the European variety and is even considered now to be a subspecies of Sambucus nigra.
- European red elder (Sambucus racemosa): The European red elder, which is also found in the United States, has a long history of use by Native Americans, who are known to have employed the wood for making flutes and bows (in fact, the wood of the elderberry plant has been used across cultures throughout history for this purpose) and the flowers and red berries for food and medicine. Even the more highly toxic bark, leaves, and roots have traditionally been used in small doses as emetics.
We’re all taught that there are plant species that produce berries we shouldn’t eat. And some sources claim that even elderberries are poisonous until they’re cooked and red elderberries shouldn’t be eaten at all. Yet people have been eating elderberries, including the red ones, cooked and raw for thousands of years.
So what’s the deal?
Elderberry plants contain toxins called cyanogenic glycosides—plant toxins that form cyanide after coming into contact with water. In large enough quantities, cyanide is, of course, deadly.
However, cyanogenic glycosides are found in a variety of plants, most of which we humans eat. For example, apples, peaches, cashews, chickpeas, and flaxseeds all contain cyanogenic glycosides, which means that eating large amounts of any of these foods could theoretically kill you—or at least make you really sick.
And the same is true for elderberries.
While raw elderberry fruits have been eaten for millennia, anyone who’s eaten too many of them at one sitting probably has a story to tell of unpleasant side effects, including upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Sources also describe how some Native American tribes tended to remove the seeds (which have higher levels of glycosides) and cook the berries before consuming them.
So as long as you remove the seeds and cook the elderberries—or resolve never to pig out on raw berries—you should be able to get the most out of everything elderberries have to offer without any nasty side effects.
And this includes their many health benefits.
Health Benefits of Elderberries
Like other berries, elderberries are packed with nutrition. Just a cup of raw elderberries contains:
- 41% of the RDA of fiber
- 17% of the RDA of vitamin A
- 87% of the RDA of vitamin C
- 17% of the RDA of vitamin B6
- 7% of the RDA of thiamine
- 5% of the RDA of riboflavin
- 6% of the RDA of calcium
- 13% of the RDA of iron
- 12% of the RDA of potassium
Elderberries are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and a number of beneficial phytochemicals, including the flavonoids quercetin, isorhamnetin, kaempferol, and anthocyanins. In fact, elderberries are one of the richest plant sources of anthocyanins.
The flavonoids in elderberries possess significant antioxidant activity. This means they can protect the body from harmful free radicals, which are known to promote inflammation and chronic disease, including heart disease, obesity, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What’s more, studies have found that phytonutrients help boost the immune system, regulate hormones, neutralize carcinogens, and repair damaged DNA.
Now let’s take a look at what studies involving elderberries have found.
Animal and human studies of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis have shown that the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects of phenolic compounds, especially flavonoids such as those found in elderberries, can reduce pain and inflammation and even protect cartilage from damage.
A clinical trial published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in which researchers looked specifically at the potential benefits of elderberries found that patients with knee osteoarthritis who applied elderberry gel 3 times a day for 2 weeks experienced greater symptom relief than those who used a gel containing diclofenac—a widely prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that diabetic rats who were supplemented with elderberry extract while being fed a high-fat diet experienced decreased markers of insulin resistance, including lower blood sugar levels.
Another study in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology demonstrated that phenolic compounds extracted from elderberries had a positive effect on the immune systems of diabetic rats and even reduced inflammation of pancreatic cells.
In a small clinical trial published in the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, patients who developed dermatitis after coming in contact with paederus beetles and were treated with topical elderberry extract had significant improvement in burning, pain, and inflammation and experienced faster healing time than the control group. What’s more, over 90% of participants underwent complete resolution of symptoms within 48 hours.
Elderberries have been used for the treatment of cold and flu symptoms for centuries, and elderberry tincture, syrup, and lozenges can be found in just about any health food store.
A clinical trial published in the Journal of International Medical Research, looking at the potential antiviral activity of elderberries, found that patients experiencing flu-like symptoms for 48 hours or less who received elderberry syrup 4 times a day for 5 days required fewer medications and experienced relief of symptoms an average of 4 days sooner than those receiving a placebo.
Likewise, a study published in the journal Nutrients found that air travelers with colds who took elderberry extract before, during, and after flying experienced both milder symptoms and shorter cold duration.
And a study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that elderberry liquid extract possesses antimicrobial activity against several strains of Streptococcus as well as the flu virus.
Similarly, a study published in the African Journal of Microbiology Research found that elderberry extract was effective against a number of pathogenic bacteria, including Staphylococcus epidermidis, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, and Klebsiella pneumoniae.
Because of the association between inflammation and chronic diseases like heart disease, researchers have begun looking at the possible role antioxidant-rich foods like elderberries play in reducing disease risk.
A study published in the journal Nutrition Reviews noted that human trials using either berries or anthocyanin extracts have demonstrated significant increases in antioxidant capacity and improvements in lipid peroxidation, dyslipidemia, and impaired glucose metabolism, all of which are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
A study published in the African Journal of Biotechnology found that elderberry extract was toxic to both liver and colon cancer cells.
Similarly, a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food that looked at European and American elderberries found that extracts of both plants exhibited significant chemopreventive properties.
When you compare the cyanogenic glycosides in elderberries with their potential health benefits, we’re sure you can see why we say elderberries are the yin and yang of fruit. And while eating too many of the raw fruits can make you sick, showing the plant the respect it deserves can also boost your health and well-being.
So the next time you feel a cold coming on or think you need an extra boost of antioxidants, grab some elderberry syrup, pop a few elderberries into your morning smoothie, or maybe even sit down with a nice glass of the Englishman’s grape—elderberry wine!