Better Late Than Never

The aronia berry’s untold story
By Adam Swenson

Aronia melanocarpa is a plant that has been hidden in plain sight for many years. In a 1973 article titled “The Enigmatic Chokeberries,” North Carolina State botanist James W. Hardin writes, “The species of Aronia (chokeberries) are native North American shrubs which are also cultivated as ornamentals … Its center of distribution is in the northeast and Great Lakes area with a southern extension into the higher elevations of the Appalachians … Aronia melanocarpa, as the epithet indicates, has black pomes [fruits] which ripen early, wither soon, and either fall or persist.”

Even as Hardin was writing that, the aronia was losing most of its native habitat to monoculture field crops and urbanization. It was, however, turning up as a shrub popular for landscaping. Its signature purple berries went largely unnoticed and unharvested, which is a shame. Now their time has finally come—as the Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham writes, “[aronia is] poised to hit the nutritional spotlight as a world-class superberry.”

(To preemptively clear up any confusion, aronia plants are also known as “chokeberries.” They have nothing in common with “chokecherries” other than a superficial resemblance and a similar sounding name.)

Aronia: the trans-Atlantic migrations

Native to the US, the aronia family of plants were esteemed by the Native Americans for their health-enhancing properties (which we are just now starting to embrace a few hundred years later). An interesting historical footnote, provided by Nebraska aronia farmer, Kenny Sailors: “The Native Americans would pound aronia berries into buffalo, deer, and antelope meat to preserve it. Lewis and Clark discovered this highly nutritious, lightweight food and bought all the aronia berry pemmican they could get. They carried huge packs of aronia berry meat which sustained them on their journey.”

Even as it was being crowded out in the US, forward-thinking Europeans took up the cause. Aronia was introduced to Europe in the early 1900s, first to Russia and Scandinavia and later to Poland and Austria.

Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, the renowned Russian botanist with a fantastic name and even better catchphrase (“We cannot wait for favors from Nature. To take them from it—that is our task”) was among the first to recognize its value. Due to aronia’s nutritional properties, the ease of growing it, and its extraordinary resilience, Michurin thought it would be a good candidate to survive those frigid Siberian winters. A born genetic tinkerer, naturally he improved it before sending it off—a genotype he developed was named in his honor, Aronia mitschurinii. It is still cultivated on an industrial scale near Moscow and St. Petersburg. (The berry was later pressed into service to enhance the diets of Russian cosmonauts.)

Aronia’s reintroduction to the US happened first as a landscaping bush, and only later as a commercially grown superfood. Omaha’s Kenny Sailors was an early proponent, well ahead of the curve. He discovered the health and wellness benefits of the aronia berry in the mid-90s and started growing them soon after. Kenny’s interest in this berry grew markedly after he saw how it helped his brother, John, who had liver failure. Kenny took John home from the hospital and fed him a steady diet of aronia berries. John’s health returned: He gained weight, returned to work, and lived well beyond his doctor’s expectations. Now Kenny grows and distributes aronia berries through his company, Superberries.

Unlike many other fruits, aronia berries are naturally resistant to pests and disease, and thus do not require the use of agricultural toxins.

ORAC: The numbers don’t lie

If you’re wondering what the big kerfuffle is over the humble purple aronia berry, the answer lies in an acronym. ORAC stands for oxygen radical absorbance capacity—as you might guess, it’s a way to measure the number of free radicals that can be absorbed or neutralized by any given food. As Americans fighting pollution, stress, and indulgent eating habits, we are overrun by oxidation and inflammation, so any way we can fight that is a tremendous boon to health.

The aronia berry’s ORAC score comes in at 16,000. To put this in some context, blueberries have long been seen as an excellent antioxidant (and they are), and their ORAC score is 4,669. Elderberries are the next closest to aronia with a score of 14,697, while cranberries clock in at a respectable 9,000.

Though ORAC scores will vary depending on the source you refer to and whether or not the food in question has been processed, it is safe to say that aronia lands in the top two or three berries, with only acai berries outscoring it. However, if eating food grown on your home continent is something you’d like to support, you can certainly view aronia as a homegrown superfruit alternative to acai.

Their high ORAC scores come from a potent blend of polyphenolic antioxidants including tannins (a subclass of flavonoids present in red wine), catechins, and anthocyanins. Kenny Sailors writes, “The compounds in aronia berries have strong antioxidant, radical-scavenging properties. Usually one type of antioxidant dominates in a particular fruit. Aronia is unique because of its simultaneous presence of huge amounts of anthocyanins, tannins, and proanthocyanidins.”

Conditions

If you’re wondering what specific conditions aronia berries help with, the broader answer is that by reducing oxidation they will help with any condition exacerbated by oxidation and inflammation—and that’s a pretty broad range. A recent abstract in the International Journal of Inflammation says, “Inflammation triggered by oxidative stress is the cause of much, perhaps even most, chronic human disease, including human aging. ...[Oxidation’s] presence and crucial role in the manifestation of many diseases never previously recognized as inflammatory is relatively recent. In such instances, the source of the inflammation is also often imperceptible. This is especially relevant to the many pervasive chronic diseases that are still responsible for so much human suffering.”

Bulgarian researchers have catalogued a list of specific maladies aronia has shown efficacy in treating. The list includes an ability to protect the liver and digestive system; fight bacteria and type A influenza; normalize carbohydrate metabolism in diabetics; fight cancerous mutations; and decrease toxicity and accumulation of heavy metals. This is why it’s called a superfood.

A guide to proper care and feeding

Though relatively new to the market, aronia berries come in a variety of forms. Superberries makes an organic, non-GMO aroniaberry concentrate—over seven pounds of the fruit is used to make one bottle. Sailors recommends diluting one tablespoon of concentrate with water and maybe a splash of lemon juice.

Superberries also offers gummy chews, which would be quite a health upgrade over the vast majority of kids chews currently on the market. Lastly they offer the fresh-frozen berries in their natural form: Use on smoothies, in cereal, in salads, or on yogurt. They naturally have a very tart, complex taste, so be advised when making substitutions. Aronia would make a natural replacement for cranberries—that’s in the ballpark, flavor-wise.

Another product that could have great potential: The Voruta label imports a chokeberry wine from Lithuania—yum!

Americans universally can benefit from eating foods with higher ORAC scores—it fights one of the great unseen killers in this country. Coupled with a diet high in other fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods, aronia berries are a great resource in the quest to eat our way to health.