Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis ripening on the bush
Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis ripening on the bush

By Sarah Crawford, PhD

INTRODUCTION

The American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis L.) derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon “aeld” which means fire, as its hollow stems were used to blow air into firepits to increase their flame. The Genus name “Sambucus” means wind instrument because the branches were used by Native Americans to make flutes, from which it earned the name, “the tree of music.”  The elderberry is a perennial shrub native to the eastern part of North America with delicate white blooms that mature to deep purple berries in late summer to fall. The first reports of its cultivation (or planting and harvesting) in America date back to 1761, although the first cultivars (those developed for agricultural use), called Adams 1 and Adams 2, were only presented in 1926.  The elderberry fruit is used to prepare fragrant and delicious jams, juice, wines, and pies.  This rich summer fruit was also used by Native American cultures as a medicinal, a use that may be appropriate as more recent research has demonstrated that the elderberry is rich in phytochemicals with anti-oxidant properties, including phenolics and anthocyanins. Although not as well-known as the more famous blueberry and raspberry, analyses of its phytochemical makeup show that the anti-oxidant properties of the elderberry compare extremely well to these small fruit relatives.

ANTI-OXIDANT CONTENT OF ELDERBERRIES

Phenolic compounds are important because they are scavengers of free radicals-highly reactive molecules that damage DNA and cells of the body. Free radical scavengers – also called anti-oxidants – target and neutralize free radicals to prevent them from damaging the cell.  It is well known that plant phenolics are excellent anti-oxidants, so researchers measure the amounts of phenolics with free radical scavenging ability in the cell. Scientists have determined that both phenolic (see Table 1) the anti-oxidant capacity (see Table 2) of elderberries is comparable to that of blackberries and other small berry fruits.1Jabłońska-Ryś, E, Zalewska-Korona, M Kalbarczyk J In fact, the darker the pigmentation of the fruit, the greater its anti-oxidant capacity, because the pigmentation reflects the amount of anthocyanins – a group of free radical scavenging phenolics- in the plant.

Moreover, the anti-oxidant capacity of berries is significantly higher than almost any other food group (see Table 3).2Halvorsen BL, Carlsen MH, Phillips KM, et al. Content of redox-active compounds (i.e., antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;84(1):95-135. The National Food and Nutrient Analysis program of the US Department of Agriculture ranked berries #1 in anti-oxidant content per serving among 1113 foods tested.2Halvorsen BL, Carlsen MH, Phillips KM, et al. Content of redox-active compounds (i.e., antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;84(1):95-135.   For this reason, plant developers are attempting to produce elderberry cultivars with even higher levels of these important anti-oxidants.

In fact, clinical research studies have shown that anthocyanins [we will insert link here to Fat Stone Farm article for definition] show preventive effects for degenerative diseases associated with aging- not surprising since much research has shown that the aging process is associated with accumulated effects of free radical damage to cells of the body.3Youdim KA, Martin A, Joseph JA. Incorporation of the elderberry anthocyanins by endothelial cells increases protection against oxidative stress. Free Radical Biol Med. 2000; 29:51–60.  Research by Thole et al4Thole JM, Kraft TF, Sueiro LA, Kang YH, Gills JJ, Cuendet M, et al. A comparative evaluation of the anticancer properties of European and American elderberry fruits. J Medicinal Foods. 2006; 9:498–504.  has shown that elderberries of both American (S. canadensis) and European (S. nigra) species are potent inhibitors of cyclo-oxygenase-2, an enzyme that triggers inflammatory processes linked to many types of cancer, including colon cancer. These species of elderberry were also found to activate quinone reductase, an important biomarker for cancer prevention4Thole JM, Kraft TF, Sueiro LA, Kang YH, Gills JJ, Cuendet M, et al. A comparative evaluation of the anticancer properties of European and American elderberry fruits. J Medicinal Foods. 2006; 9:498–504. .

CONCLUSION

Plants with dark, small berries are among the richest of all foods in phenolic content and associated anti-oxidant properties. Elderberries are one of the most important members of this group, based on research showing that the levels of these important phytochemicals are among the highest of any berry. Important clinical research suggests that the anti-oxidant effects of these phenolic compounds may play a critical role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and degenerative disorders.3Youdim KA, Martin A, Joseph JA. Incorporation of the elderberry anthocyanins by endothelial cells increases protection against oxidative stress. Free Radical Biol Med. 2000; 29:51–60.  4Thole JM, Kraft TF, Sueiro LA, Kang YH, Gills JJ, Cuendet M, et al. A comparative evaluation of the anticancer properties of European and American elderberry fruits. J Medicinal Foods. 2006; 9:498–504.

Table 1. Phenolic content of berry fruits1Jabłońska-Ryś, E, Zalewska-Korona, M Kalbarczyk J

Fruit

Phenolic content [mg gallic acid·100 g -1 f.w.]

Blackberry

247.25±11.14

Elderberry

535.98±8.04

Blueberry

424.72±14.05

Wild strawberry

165.46±13.07

Table 2. Anti-oxidant levels of berry fruits1Jabłońska-Ryś, E, Zalewska-Korona, M Kalbarczyk J

Fruits

FRAP [mM Fe·100g-1 f.w.] ANTIOXIDANT MEASUREMENT

Blackberry

15.17±0.21

Blueberry

30.48±1.42

Elderberry

29.56±1.92

Wild strawberry

10.99±0.29

Table 3. The comparative anti-oxidant content of foods2Halvorsen BL, Carlsen MH, Phillips KM, et al. Content of redox-active compounds (i.e., antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;84(1):95-135.

Product category

Antioxidant content

mmol/100 g

Spices and herbs

0.803–125.549

Nuts and seeds

0.029–13.126

Chocolates and sweets

0.092–10.474

Vegetables and vegetable products

0.018–4.694

Ready-to-eat cereals

0.157–4.291

Desserts and cakes

0.000–4.097

Berries and berry products

0.978–4.059

Fruit and fruit juices

0.081–2.512

Beverage

0.000–2.135

Soups, sauces, gravies, dressings, etc

0.000–1.566

Fast food

0.001–1.262

Infant foods and beverages

0.017–1.248

Legumes

0.008–1.184

Snacks

0.148–1.170

Grains and grain products

0.009–0.997

Dairy products

0.011–0.763

Mixed-food entrees

0.026–0.731

Fats and oils

0.187–0.531

Meat, meat products, and substitutes

0.052–0.509

Poultry and poultry products

0.072–0.388

Fish and seafood

0.025–0.141

Egg and egg dishes

0.009–0.047

Related article: PHENOLIC VALUES OF ELDELBERRY

1 Jabłońska-Ryś, E, Zalewska-Korona, M Kalbarczyk J Anti-oxidant capacity, ascorbic acid and phenolics content in wild edible fruits. Journal of Fruit and Ornamental Plant Research Vol. 17/(2) 2009: 115-120.
2 Halvorsen BL, Carlsen MH, Phillips KM, et al. Content of redox-active compounds (i.e., antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;84(1):95-135.
3 Youdim KA, Martin A, Joseph JA. Incorporation of the elderberry anthocyanins by endothelial cells increases protection against oxidative stress. Free Radical Biol Med. 2000; 29:51–60. 
4 Thole JM, Kraft TF, Sueiro LA, Kang YH, Gills JJ, Cuendet M, et al. A comparative evaluation of the anticancer properties of European and American elderberry fruits. J Medicinal Foods. 2006; 9:498–504.