The post, written by Kevin Curran, PhD, focuses on the research backing the immune boosting benefits of this dark purple berry ingredient. Curran, who manages a nascent medicinal plants research effort at the University of San Diego, is a biology professor at the private university who teaches classes in cell biology and ethnobotany. Since Curran’s blog post on his EthnoHerablist web site went up in mid April, it has become the No. 1 hit on Google under the search term “black elderberry.”
Independent look at research
“My interest is in medicinal plants in general, and those that have an effect on inflammatory processes or immune cells are a subset of that,” Curran told NutraIngredients-USA.
In the blog post, titled “3 benefits of black elderberry syrup for our immune system,” Curran delves into the science behind this ingredient. He noted that, in common with many other herbal ingredients, enthusiasts will extrapolate from thin data to support outsized claims. Black elderberry has been promoted for positive effects on HIV, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, none of which in Curran’s view are well supported by the available evidence. But, a more modest claim of shortening the duration of common cold symptoms is well supported, he wrote.
“In contrast, multiple clinical trials have been published on the ability of elderberry to shorten the length of time we suffer from cold and flu symptoms,” the blog post reads.
Different regions, different active constituents
Curran’s research at USD is focused now on medicinal plants from the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. This has a lot to do with proximity, because collecting plants in the field is a key element in the education of future ethnobotanists, he said.
“In parallel with this project on desert plants coming together I built a website myself and I’m always looking at certain plants that have medicinal properties. I was impressed by the clinical evidence behind black elderberry. I use black elderberry in our program because we have a tree on campus. When we go out in the field we are looking at plants like agave and creosote,” Curran said.
Curran said that many of the active compounds in medicinal plants have to do with protecting the plants themselves from environmental stressors. In the desert, plants have challenges in holding onto water and protecting themselves against unrelenting UV radiation. Plants in other regions might have to deal with freeze/thaw cycles, more concentrated insect attack, or more potent threats from microorganisms.
In the case of local plants, Curran research in particular is honing on certain parts of a particular species of agave plant, which he believes have undiscovered medicinal qualities. Curran said he was constrained in being more specific, as the research is in the process of being prepared for peer review and publication.
Effects on cytokine levels
In the case of black elderberry, Curran said research stretching back to the late 1990s has shown the ingredient’s ability to regulate cytokine levels in the bloodstream, and has also demonstrated its antioxidant and antiviral properties. Cytokines are a key signaling molecule in the immune system that enable it to respond in timely fashion and in sufficient strength. Curran noted in particular an 2016 study from Australia that looked at the duration of cold and flu symptoms suffered by 316 air travelers flying in coach who completed surveys about their respiratory health. “These data suggest a significant reduction of cold duration and severity in air travelers. More research is warranted to confirm this effect and to evaluate elderberry’s physical and mental health benefits,” the researchers wrote.
Curran noted that the antioxidant properties of black elderberry is well supported by a number of studies. The antiviral properties are perhaps the least well supported leg of the stool. Curran noted that antiviral activity has been demonstrated in vitro, but has yet to be well supported in animal models, and said further research is necessary.
Particular manufacturers noted
Curran, who said he is not supported by any entities within the industry, noted in particular in his blog post products made by New Chapter, Gaia Herbs and Sambucol. Another black elderberry player that has picked up on the blog post is supplier Artemis International, which manufactures a line of berry-based extracts and powders branded as Berryceuticals.
“People tend to just think ‘cold and flu’when they think immunity and Vitamin C has been a go-to’for immune support. But global research shows that’s only part of the story,” said Jan Mills, president and founder of Artemis International. “Elderberry and its nutraceutical ingredient forms have been utilized throughout history and are currently gaining popularity as a functional ingredient in leading dietary supplements positioned for colds and flu and for elderberry’s broader immune system benefits.”
Artemis said its European Black Elderberry extracts are produced through a proprietary solvent-free process called Holistic Membrane Extraction (HME) that delivers extracts that represent the whole fruit matrix including all of the phytonutrients that contribute to the ingredient’s immune-boosting effects.