A powerful but often overlooked wild berry
I’m walking the back roads of Truro with my friend Nicole Cormier, who works as a dietician and is studying herbalism. We’re looking for something called Aronia which grows dark purple almost black berries.
"It’s a shrub that's like native to Northern America. Typically, it's going to be in woodlands, swampy areas, kind of like where we where we are right now. And so, you can do a lot of different things with them for medicinal purposes," Nicole explained.
The reason she got so interested in the berries is because they're very similar from an antioxidant level to elderberries or acai berries.
We hear about antioxidants all the time, but it’s hard at least for me to remember why exactly they’re important. The simplest explanation is that they neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals, which are linked to a host of different diseases and aging. So, polyphenols are a type of antioxidant, and they regulate everything from metabolism to cell growth to chronic disease.
"A couple of the compounds that are really a hot topic now is quercetin, which is a polyphenol that is really good for anti-inflammatory and boosting our immune system. It's been very popular like during COVID to really be helpful in those situations. And then there's also anthocyanins. And so that's like that, located in blueberries like really gives an antioxidant boost there and same level in the Aronia berries," Nicole said.
One study tested 143 different plantsand found that of all of them, Aronia berries had the highest overall polyphenol levels, containing almost twice the levels found in a long list of other fruits. For this reason, Nicole is collecting Aronia now to enjoy as both food and medicine over the winter.
"So from a medicinal standpoint I like to do like dry them and put them into teas or tea blends for myself, but you could also freeze them fresh and use them later on in the winter, or you can make a jam and also a syrup like you would make in elderberry syrup," she explained.
When Nicole makes a syrup she loves putting other medicinal flavors and spices in it, like cinnamon.
"You could also put other berries. You could do a mix of elderberry and Aronia berries, ginger, um really anything that would that you would see in an elderberry syrup or something along those flavor profiles would go really nicely. Cinnamon, I think, would be a must."
Nicole uses maple syrup or local honey in her medicinal syrups and says a little sweetener is especially important with Aronia because the berries have a dry, astringent taste — one that makes your mouth pucker. I’ve been eating them folded into smoothies alongside other sweeter local berries and they kind of disappear into the mix while still offering all these health benefits.
"One thing that I'm really excited about as a dietitian and herbalist is that on PubMed and the National Institute for Medicine, you're going to be seeing so many more studies, clinical trials that are bringing these plants to the pages so that we can really utilize them the way that they always have been."
Aronia is one of a long list of formerly well-known foods that modern science is only now beginning to recognize as beneficial, catching up with ancient herbalism practices and Indigenous food systems that have valued them for millennia.