The obligatory FDA Disclaimer that we’re required to include here:
“This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
It’s cold and flu season and that means, it’s also elderberry misinformation season where we see hundreds of questions flood in, August – December.
My annual PSA about elderberries is getting a jump on its typically October schedule. How can you help? Save this post. Share it every time you see a post (or comments) in your herbal community, natural wellness group, medical, homesteading or farming circles on Facebook.
Because this conversation comes up quite often, even in the off season, our team is working tirelessly to put together a thorough compilation of studies and identify those that don’t yet exist (but should be studied). Why? Because we need to spread TRUTH and make decisions based on facts, not fear. We need to avoid coming to conclusions that don’t yet exist and steer clear of assumptions.
Misinformation #1: Elderberries are Poisonous.
RIPE, RAW, UNSPRAYED BLACK ELDERBERRIES ARE NOT POISONOUS
What is true
- ✅ All parts of the elderberry shrub contain cyanogenic glycosides, regardless of species.
- ✅ Some species contain higher levels than others.
- ✅ Some plant parts contain higher levels than others.
- ✅ Growing conditions of various species and subspecies impact cyanogenic glycosides.
- ✅ Cyanogenic glycosides are unstable, vaporizing at 78°F and inert when in very cold temperatures.
- ✅ There is little evidence documenting how the human body absorbs, metabolizes or excretes cyanogenic glycosides.
- ✅ There is no evidence documenting the minimum or maximum thresholds that the human body can ingest to determine their safety nor toxicity risks.
- ✅ In some sensitive individuals who consume mass quantities of raw elderberry, they can experience digestive upset including nausea and vomiting.
- ✅ Of those who had extreme symptoms after consuming elderberry, they consumed sprayed, unripened berries in one case and ate raw red elderberries of a non-edible subspecies along with their leaves and stems.
What to avoid
- ❌ Unripened berries that are still green, yellow or orange in color.
- ❌ Plants sprayed with or planted in soil that contains herbicides, insecticides or pesticides.
- ❌ Non-black elderberry species (species nigra or canadensis)
Misinformation #2: Only Sambucus Canadensis is Safe. Sambucus Nigra is Toxic.
Because of the recent ElderBoom in America, there is a talk track that is starting to surface, perpetuated by backyard, small homesteaders and commercial American elderberry growers that only sambucus canadensis (American black elderberry) berries are safe to consume raw while sambucus nigra berries (European black elderberry) are toxic. This is not true. Please refer to ‘what is true’ above.
A study by the University of Missouri that concluded that s. canadensis had ‘trace levels’ of cyanogenic glycosides; however, after revisiting the bullet points above under “what’s true,” there have been no studies yet to prove nor disprove the safety or risk tolerance so we really don’t know what the thresholds are yet.
Additionally, since canadensis does have lower values than nigra, we don’t truly know the statistical significance; however, to say one is safe and the other is toxic is untrue. We do know that the University has a 5.2MM grant to study American Elderberry so some confirmation bias exists among those who have a financial interest.
Furthermore, there are no studies that have done a side-by-side comparison of sambucus nigra vs sambucus canadensis specifically to look for the presence of any levels of cyanogenic glycosides. When this type of study happens, we can overlay the other studies that also need to be done as referenced under ‘what’s true.’ Side note: In at least one study, CGs have shown an anti-cancer purpose in a controlled clinical setting.
Misinformation #3: Elderberries must be boiled (especially Sambucus nigra): FALSE
See above points. If you’re making a tea or elderberry syrup, steeping or simmering the water is sufficient to both extract the anthocyanins from the skins and inactivate the cyanogenic glycosides if you’re concerned.
Misinformation #4: Elderberries lose their nutritional value when cooked: PARTLY FALSE
Not all medicinal value is lost when you cook elderberries. What is true:
- ✅ Some vitamin and mineral content is lost, just as it is when you cook any food you eat. For example, the vitamin C content that raw, fresh elderberries boast of is highly unstable and lost in heat processes. This does not mean that the medicinal value of elderberries are gone as most use elderberries for the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the skins.
- ✅ Some artisanal elderberry manufacturers who hot fill have 3rd party studies proving that vitamin and mineral nutrient content still exists within their formulations. Some formulations and specific time/temp/hold processes can preserve what might have otherwise been lost by those artisans who are less refined in their operations.
- ✅ Heat, to some extent, is necessary to extract specific phytonutrients in the pigment (anthocyanins) of the skin of the fruit. Yes, at the potential risk of losing said vitamins and nutrients.
Misinformation #5: Elderberry syrup is the best way to get its nutritional value: FALSE
- ✅ There are many ways to extract nutrients from the skin and juice of the berries.
- ✅ A tea or syrup extracts water soluble nutrients
- ✅ Glycerites (vegetable glycerine) extract event more constituents than a tea or syrup
- ✅ Acetums (vinegar extracts) extract different constituents than teas, syrups or glycerites
- ✅ Tinctures (alcohol) extract both water and fat soluble nutrients and different micronutrients than those above. Additionally, they have the longest shelf life
Additionally, there are combinations of the above extraction methodologies that others use to create strong wellness tools.
Misinformation #6: Juicing / Cold Pressing Elderberries is the Best: PARTLY FALSE
While fresh pressed juice has great benefit from a water soluble vitamin and mineral standpoint, some heat is necessary to extract specific phytonutrients in the pigment (anthocyanins) of the skin of the fruit. Yes, at the potential risk of losing said vitamins and nutrients. The sole force of a juice extraction process has yet to be studied on the minimum and maximum extractions of polyphenols and antioxidants. Additionally, elderberries are 85% water. When juicing, you’re extracting the liquid from the pulp and discarding the skins and flesh.
Misinformation #7: Elderberry Leaves are Poisonous: FALSE
Elderberry leaves have botanically beneficial value, even with the high presence of cyanogenic glycosides. In herbal communities, it’s long been frowned upon suggesting that elderberry leaves can be used to create wellness tools. There are both historical accounts and recent scientific evidence to support both internal and topical uses. The herbal community is not immune to the misunderstanding of cyanogenic glycosides. At times, they take the ultimate precaution, not invested in the research to disprove their fears otherwise.