elderberries

Harvested from the indigenous Sambucus elder tree, elderberries have been a source of nutrition and medicine for thousands of years.

Today, the tart berries are often cooked down to make elderberry pies, jams, and juices, or fermented to make wine. While definitive research is ongoing, many people swear by its healing properties and rely on elderberry syrup or tablets to boost their immune system and overcome common illnesses.

But are the benefits of elderberry real, or is this vibrant fruit simply riding on its reputation?

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What Are the Benefits of Elderberry?

It’s highly nutritious

Medicinal claims aside, elderberries are both low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals — a double bonus in the world of nutrition.

One cup of elderberries contains a little over 100 calories, with 27 grams of carbs, one gram of fat, and one gram of protein. Even more impressive is that it boasts a hefty dose of antioxidants, a whopping 10 grams of dietary fiber, and 52 milligrams of vitamin C — 87 percent of your recommended daily intake.

All of that makes for an impressive nutritional breakdown. While you shouldn’t eat elderberries morning, noon, and night, they can be a wholesome staple in an overall healthy diet.

It may help to fight colds and the flu

Given its nutritional value, it makes sense why elderberry is sought out to relieve inflammation and support immune health.

One study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that participants who consumed elderberry syrup felt relief from their flu symptoms four days earlier on average than those who received a placebo. Another NLB-published study of 312 air travelers found that when those who were sick took a 900 mg elderberry extract capsule three times daily, they recovered faster and experienced less severe cold and flu symptoms.

So, does elderberry work? While these small studies point to a promising verdict, researchers suggest that larger-scale studies need to be conducted in order to confirm elderberry’s role in preventing or treating influenza or the common cold.

It could improve heart health and lower the risk of diabetes

Because elderberries are rich in three types of flavanols — naturally occurring compounds in plants with antioxidant properties — they may help to improve heart health.

Some studies have linked flavanol to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Research has also shown elderberries can reduce fat levels in the blood, lower cholesterol, and improve blood sugar levels.

Research on elderberries’ effects on chronic diseases is ongoing and often controversial. Since many studies on elderberries have been performed only on rats, further research on humans is needed.

Does Elderberry Have Other Benefits?

There are other claims about the benefits of adding elderberries to your diet. These potential benefits include:

  • Lower cancer risk
  • Less fatigue
  • Decreased constipation
  • Help in treating HIV/AIDS
  • Reduced toothache pain
  • Diminished nerve pain
  • Aid in weight loss
  • Relief from hay fever
  • Eased gingivitis

Can Elderberries Be Dangerous?

Uncooked elderberries and the plant’s bark, leaves, and roots can be toxic. These parts of the plant contain lectins, a kind of protein that can cause stomach upset. Under some circumstances, they even contain bitter elements that can produce cyanide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight people were hospitalized in 1983 after consuming homemade elderberry juice. An investigation revealed the juice had been made by crushing raw elderberries, leaves, and stems in a juice press. Those who consumed the most elderberry juice became the sickest.

It’s important to note that most accounts of elderberry poisoning were due to raw consumption and poorly executed homemade recipes. Elderberry tablets, teas, and other products you see in pharmacies and on supermarket shelves are likely nontoxic.

As a precaution, always discuss any type of nutritional supplement with your doctor before modifying your diet.

For more living and wellness information or to learn more about Nutrition Services at UPMC, call 412-647-8762. If you have a nutrition-related question, email AskADietitian@upmc.edu to connect with a UPMC dietitian.

Sources

Self Magazine, Elderberries, Raw Nutrition Facts and Calories, https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1883/2

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15080016

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4848651/

Centers for Disease Control, Poisoning From Elderberry Juice — California, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000311.htm

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