elderberries displayed on a cutting board with a jar of elderberry jam in the center of the image and a sprig of leaves in the lower left corner

Do elderberries pack healing powers?

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During the pandemic, you may have seen advertisements about the immune-boosting properties of a small, dark purple fruit known as the elderberry. Elderberries have been marketed to treat colds and flu. Some proponents even claimed they are useful against COVID-19. You also may have heard that they can help with other conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

So what’s the deal? Are elderberries really a miracle fruit that can give you super immunity?

What are elderberries?

Elderberries are small, purple berries used in jams, jellies, sauces, wines and desserts.

Traditionally, though, they have been used as a medicine and are popular today as a dietary supplement for colds and flu. Elderberry supplements are typically sold as pills, syrup, gummies and teas.

Are elderberries nutritious?

Elderberries are a great source of many nutrients, including:

  • Anthocyanins, flavonols and phenolic acids, which are disease-fighting compounds that protect your body from harm.
  • Fiber, which is needed for stomach and intestinal health and to prevent disease.
  • Potassium, which performs many necessary roles in the body.
  • Vitamin A, which is important for vision, immunity and growth.
  • Vitamin C, which boosts the immune system and is important for making proteins.

What does the research say?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) believes that more research is needed into how useful elderberries are in fighting colds and flu.

A 2018 study found some evidence that elderberry supplements can help you recover more quickly from colds or flu and also lessen the severity of symptoms. However, this study reviewed only a few research articles that were conducted on a small number of people. Most studies on elderberries have been conducted in a test tube or on animals.

There is also not enough evidence to support using elderberries to treat heart conditions, diabetes or other health problems. And there is no evidence that they protect against COVID-19.

Are elderberries safe?

It is important to cook elderberries before eating them, because the berries and other parts of the elderberry plant contain cyanide and lectins, which are toxic when eaten raw. The toxic materials are destroyed when they are cooked, making them safe to eat.

Children and pregnant or breastfeeding women shouldn’t eat elderberries at all, since it’s not known how the berries might affect them.

Elderberry supplements can interfere with diabetes medications, laxatives and diuretics, so you shouldn’t take elderberry supplements if you are on any of these medications.

The bottom line

While research shows elderberry supplements may be helpful in treating colds and flu, we still need more research.

If you wish to take one, always check with your doctor first.

However, elderberries as a food are a great source of vitamins and minerals and an antioxidant powerhouse. Always make sure you cook the berries first, but you can enjoy them in moderation in elderberry jam, sauce or pie.