old Austrian saying, “Tip your hat to the elder,” expresses the respect with which Europeans have long regarded the elder tree (Sambucus nigra L. Caprifoliaceae) and its dark purple berries.

Elderberries have been employed in European folk medicine since antiquity for a plethora of maladies from arthritis and asthma to colds and constipation. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates referred to the elder tree as his “medicine chest.”

Today, elderberry is going beyond its classical medicine uses and is an increasingly popular functional food ingredient. The success of elderberry—especially in the Austrian, German and English markets—owes equally to its unrivalled flavor and extraordinary health benefits.

Elderberry Growth and Production

Austria is the world's primary elderberry-producing country. Formulators use Haschberg variety elderberries in juices, jams, fruit yogurts and wines. Demand is also increasing for elderberry extracts in the nutraceutical field. The epicenter of the booming Austrian elderberry industry is the Beerenfrost Co-op in Thalhammerstrasse, directed by Kurt Kaufmann. Kaufmann organized one thousand Austrian growers into an efficient co-op and built the immense Beerenfrost berry freezing facility.

“In September at harvest, the elderberries must be cooled immediately, or they spoil. Here at Beerenfrost, elderberries are chilled to 20°C in less than 24 hours,” reports Kaufmann.

Potent Purple Pigments

At the heart of elderberry's rapidly increasing popularity lies a group of uniquely beneficial pigments. Analytical research conducted in Europe shows that elderberries are concentrated sources of anthocyanins, potent purple pigments that appear to benefit health in several ways. Ongoing research in Europe is is focusing on these anthocyanins.

  • Antioxidant activity. In Karlsruhe at Germany's Bundesforschungsanstalt research center for food, scientists conduct studies on dietary agents that can reduce oxidation and protect cells. According to research led by the center's director, Dr. Gerhard Rechkemmer, anthocyanins found in elderberries possess appreciably more antioxidant capacity than either vitamin E or vitamin C.
  • Immune payoff. Rechkemmer's investigations also show that elderberry anthocyanins enhance immune function by boosting the production of cytokines. These unique proteins act as messengers in the immune system to help regulate immune response, thus helping to defend the body against disease.
  • When asked if he thinks that further berry research will reveal additional health benefits, Rechkemmer is positive. “I believe so. But the anthocyanins are extremely hard to track in blood plasma, so we do not know exactly what they are doing in the body. We must discover their mode of action and go beyond belief to certain knowledge.”
  • Cardiovascular protection. At the scientific heart of the elderberry boom, Doctors Werner Pfannhauser and Michael Murkovic at Austria's University of Graz have found that elderberry extract reduces oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is implicated in atherogenesis, thus contributing to cardiovascular disease.
  • Anti-viral activity. An Israeli study on the anti-viral activity of elderberry extract found that in vitro elderberry extract inhibited replication of a number of strains of influenza A and B in cell cultures. In the same paper, administration of elderberry extract to 27 patients with influenza shortened the duration of flu symptoms.
  • Stress reduction. Austrian endocrinologist Dr. Sepp Porta uses elderberry concentrate in stress studies. “We only gave these people the elderberry for 10 days,” he notes. “We put them through typical stress tests, all the usual physical challenges, and the results were so remarkable, I checked them over and over.”
  • In the study, various bio-markers of stress, including glucose, magnesium and other plasma chemical levels, were analyzed.

    Elderberry in the U.S.

    Artemis International of Fort Wayne, Ind., is introducing food, beverage and supplement companies to the elderberry extracts and concentrates that originate from Beerenfrost and undergo further concentration at Iprona, a juice facility in Italy.

    Artemis president Jan Mills says that health findings have fueled significant interest in elderberry from the food and beverage sector, where companies use elderberry concentrate as a natural food coloring in place of FD&C dyes. “I get calls from companies that want to sell healthy products, especially if they taste good,” she notes. “It's a good thing for everybody.” NS

    Chris Kilham is a health researcher, medicine hunter and the author of Tales From The Medicine Trail, published by Rodale Press. He can be e-mailed at: chris@medicinehunter.com