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Betting on black elderberry for a farm-to-table super fruit story

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Photo courtesy of Norm's Farms
Photo courtesy of Norm's Farms
Missouri berry producer Innovative Natural Solutions is betting that black elderberry can become the next big botanical on the dietary supplement front, capitalizing on a growing trend of high antioxidant fruits in the market.

The company, based in Purdy, MO, recently concluded a partnership with a berry grower and finished goods manufacturer Norm’s Farms to grow and popularize this botanical. INS had been a key supplier for Norm’s Farms before formalizing the closer relationship.

School trip gave birth to business

bennett bilberry
Devon Bennett

Devon Bennett, president of INS, said his experiences during his agricultural study led him to discover the powerhouse berry.

“I was on a school trip after high school sponsored by the FFA (Future Farmers of America) and we saw these plants all over Europe,”​ he said.

Bennett became intrigued, and did more research. After college, with the help of the University of Missouri, he planted his first plots.

“The next year I planted seven acres.  We used some plants from the University of Missouri test plots, and we still have some of those varieties in our lines,”​ he said.

Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra​) is a flowering shrub native to Europe and North America that has been used by man for hundreds if not thousands of years.

“Black elder (Sambucus nigra L.) has a long ethnobotanical history across many disparate cultures as a treatment for viral infection and is currently one of the most-used medicinal plants worldwide,”​ said a recent review by researchers based in Washington State​ of its immune health effects.

A Polish study noted that the berries are rich in phenolic acids, such as caffeic, chlorogenic, p-coumaric, ferulic, gallic and syringic acids, and flavonols including quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin and rutin.  The combined antioxidant effects of these compounds could have important health benefits​, they argued.

“Elder beverages could be important dietary sources of natural antioxidants that contribute to the prevention of diseases caused by oxidative stress,”​ the Polish researchers wrote.

Getting back to the roots

mareth bilberry
Ed Mareth

Ed Mareth, an investor in the business, has been in agricultural development for many years.  After working on some corporate projects, including a large scale algae cultivation effort, he said he felt it was time to rediscover his roots.  He say the INS/Norm’s Farm story has a feel-good farm to table story as well as providing a high quality ingredient.

“I kind of felt a loss of purpose.  The connection to the family farm has been lost. I was looking for a way to take a product all the way from the farmer through to the consumer,”​ he said.

Norm’s Farms was instituted as a way to continue the mission of founder, Norman Lenhardt, who had a vision of healthy, home grown food that he raised on his 170-acre Missouri farm.  That farm is still in the family, and berries grown there as well as others go into the Norm’s Farms lines of jellies, jams and juices. 

Fingerprinting the berry

Bennett said the goal for the ingredient is to fully characterize all of its constituents. To that end the company has been cooperating with cranberry specialist Fruit d’Or. That company has a relationship with Christian Krueger, a lab manager at the University of Wisconsin who has done a great deal of characterization work on cranberry and other berry ingredients. Krueger has pioneered the use of MALDI-TOF technology to fully identify and describe the proanthocyanidins within these fruit.

“We are working with varieties of the subspecies ​Canadensis. We are testing each one of those varieties.  We are the first ones to fingerprint elderberry,” ​Bennett said.

“We don’t want to say that the European berries are not as good for you. But we want to find out exactly what is within our berries so we can tell that story,”​ he said.

Bennett said in addition to its Missouri acreage, the company is working with growers in Florida and elsewhere.  Norm’s Farms has said in the past that demand in the US is high, but supply is still low, and as much as 90% of the black elderberry products consumed here coming from raw material grown in Europe.

Mareth said he sees great potential for ramping up the market in the US for supplements and food products featuring the fruit.

“Consumer awareness is going through the roof. I think it will become one of the most recognized super fruits.  As we see it, the market is so much in its infancy that it’s hard to saw what the bandwidth is going to be,” ​he said.

Blueberries are part of the story, too

The growth of demand for dark hued fruit is nothing new to Fruit d’Or which has been cooperating with INS. Fruit d’Or, which is based in Villeroy, Quebec, has recently purchased more blueberry supply and is working to boost the market for that fruit to go along with its strong position within the organic cranberry market.

“This positions us to be the fourth largest in the world in the organic blueberry business,”​ said new product development manager Stephen Lukawski.

Lukawski said with the help of the characterization work done by Krueger the company knows what’s in the berries and came make a more consistent product that will be more attractive to dietary supplement formulators.

“We can standardize the product for anthocyanins and polyphenols,” ​he said.

In addition to its antioxidant properties, Lukawski said the ingredient has been gaining traction in the cognitive health space via the gut-brain connection idea.  A recent product launch by Life Extension features the blueberry ingredient in conjunction with Alpha GPC in a brain health supplement.

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