Bill Farrell started research as a child
Bill Farrell started research as a child

Starting this science blog about elderberry is exactly the type of crazy thing I’ve done throughout my life. Barely a business plan in hand, I was swept up asking intelligent, educated medical professionals to evaluate the scientific evidence supporting or refuting elderberry’s health benefits.

Thousands of dollars and a few hundred hours later I can see the effort is paying off, having developed a strong understanding of elderberry through the lens of a scientist. And importantly, I’ve absorbed the milieu (between the lines) that only the research process can provide. And now we can share what we’ve learned.

My interest in getting to the bottom of things was cultivated young. At age 13, my dad hired me to conduct a survey assessing the potential market demand for computer printer paper. For two half-days my mom dropped me off at the local industrial park where I went door-to-door introducing myself, asking survey questions and writing down the answers. I look back fondly at this empowerment.

Thirty-five years later it feels as if I’m still going door-to-door to ask questions but for the last fifteen years I’ve been doing it while being what I call an “experimental farmer.” You might consider an experimental farmer as someone who seeks an income from organic crops grown in unusual ways where learning from failures is valued as much as learning from successes. In other words, the profit motive is mostly nonmonetary.  You might also call it crazy farming! It’s painstaking but revealing. And I believe it’s the only way for me to generate ideas that might contribute to healing our food system.

Elderberry was one of the few crops that my partner Liz and I planted in 2009 that showed a zest for life in the soil and climate of our hill in Connecticut. A few short years later we could see elderberry’s weedy expression—and we knew that it loved what this place has to offer.

So, elderberry took our interest and became one of our key crops. We were new to elderberry, so Liz and I were surprised to see so many scientific studies speaking to elderberry’s health benefits. And the personal anecdotes about the power of elderberry to help fight disease were stirring. But with so many claims made by marketers of elderberry products or just moms believing they could see the positive effects of taking elderberry in their kids, what was the truth?

Even though there seemed to be plenty of elderberry science research going on, does a single study showing health benefits allow me to feel confident about the merits of consuming elderberry? Over the last year as we’ve learned by consulting a dozen people with medical credentials, the answer is absolutely not! It’s easy to be misled by the results of a single study.

But as the number of randomized, double blind, statistically significant clinical trials showing a specific health benefit from elderberry pile up, we will begin to develop a clearer picture of how elderberry works. And medical science looks to that repeatable demonstration of benefit before it reaches consensus on causality.

Though it’s been a staple of traditional folk medicine for thousands of years, modern scientists have not yet reached the tipping point of establishing scientific consensus about elderberry’s medical benefit. In fact, based on the accumulation of research conducted thus far, I don’t believe it’s even close. That’s not to say that scientific researchers aren’t being impressed by their research results right now. It just means that medical science can’t make blanket statements.

But there are already probably millions of people in Europe and the United States who have incorporated elderberry into their diet as a food or a supplement, on a daily basis or just in flu season. Many of these people swear by elderberry’s power to make them feel better. So, in the face of science’s tentativeness about elderberry, consumers seem to go full-bore. And who’s to say their wrong?

Our goal in commissioning all our scientific literature reviews was to assess the state of elderberry research. By offering our readers access to those intelligent compilations and insights and by developing ElderberryGuru to keep tabs on research progress, we hope that those consumers who remain on the sidelines can have a sound basis with which to judge whether elderberry is right for them. Importantly, our effort might help people better understand both how elderberry might improve their health but also its limitations.

Thank for you staying with us. Thank heavens for elderberry!