Steep hills, tight turns, and multiple unexpected twists—just a day in the life of any roller coaster enthusiast. As analogies go, there’s not a better one for what’s gone on in the market category of immune health over the past few years.
For some immune-supporting ingredients—dark berry extracts especially—the intense 2018 influenza season was the equivalent of slowly-but-surely chugging up that first big hill, with increased awareness waiting at the top. Then, with the official declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, those working in the immune health space experienced the extreme adrenaline rush of racing down that initial drop. Dark berry ingredients like European black elderberry were in very high demand as formulators eagerly sought to include them in immune formulas.
Facing down extreme uncertainty about virus transmission and its effects, existing supplement users as well as newcomers
This is the time to max out the momentum from that first big hill, as the market normalizes to sustainable levels. A precedent for proactively leaning on immune ingredients such as berry extracts for everyday health maintenance has been firmly established.
The Benefits of Berries
Berries are a formulator’s dream because they’re natural, safe, effective and extremely versatile. Better yet, consumers generally understand colorful fruits and vegetables are good for them, offering myriad essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that contribute to overall wellness.
The dark color pigments that give them deep red, blue, and purple hues boost their overall antioxidant capacity. These anthocyanin color pigments are part of a category of phytonutrients called flavonoids, which are polyphenols that have been scientifically linked to significant health benefits in humans.
In addition to direct antiviral and antibacterial activities1, berries high in flavonoids have been shown in studies to modulate inflammation2, which is generally an indicator of the overall state of the immune system. While many dark pigmented berries, such as aronia berry and black currant, offer studied immune-supporting properties3,4, the most well-known (and scientifically studied) dark berry in the immune support realm is European black elderberry.
Not to be confused with other elderberry species, the European Sambucus nigra has a history of use as a medicinal food that dates back centuries.
Elderberry Research Explained
Decades of scientific research underpins elderberry’s immune support capabilities. For example, in one study, an anthocyanin-standardized elderberry extract exhibited a dose-dependent reduction in certain bacteria associated with upper respiratory infections and inhibited the propagation of influenza types A and B.1
Human pilot studies in the early 2000s demonstrated the ability of European black elderberry to promote a quicker recovery from influenza symptoms. A newer and larger human clinical trial in 2016 corroborated elderberry’s ability to significantly reduce the duration and severity of symptoms in a broader context of upper respiratory tract infections.5
A few years later, a robust independent meta-analysis by Hawkins et al. evaluated all existing clinical data and concluded that “supplementation with a standardized elderberry extract is significantly effective at reducing the total duration and severity of upper respiratory symptoms, as compared to a placebo group.”6 The effect of elderberry supplementation was larger among cases of the flu than the common cold, but supplementation successfully reduced the symptoms regardless of underlying cause. Given the impact that finding could have on missed work and school days, the conclusion in support of elderberry was particularly meaningful.
How Elderberry Helps Support Immunity
To understand how elderberry had these positive effects, researchers explored potential mechanisms of action. Elderberry actives were shown to be able to inhibit viral attachment to host cells7, hindering infectivity as well as preventing viruses from replicating.
Both existing and ongoing studies suggest that other non-flavonoid active components in elderberry also contribute to its immune-boosting potential.8 Interestingly, the extraction process used to produce any given elderberry ingredient plays a role as to whether these actives are retained or stripped away, supporting the claim that processing methods matter in terms of quality control. Because of this, elderberry ingredients should only be sourced from reputable suppliers with full transparency about origin of raw materials, processing technology, and clinical substantiation.
Daily Supplements for the Win
When it comes to choosing ingredients for functional products, the science of dark berries—especially elderberry—speaks for itself. The wild ride of the past few years has only served to raise consumer consciousness of the importance of prioritizing a year-round immune support regimen of proven ingredients.
The challenge now is to innovate within the immune health category to keep buyers’ interest high. That might mean capitalizing on other complementary health benefits of berries through blends or formulating with other science-substantiated ingredients for specific immune support properties. Other potential approaches include new applications and delivery methods, such as functional foods, beverages, and confections. In both cases, the good news is that berry ingredients formulate easily into a variety of platforms and are particularly well-suited to maintaining a top immune-health ingredient category.
One could say, the roller coaster’s momentum has helped to launch dark berries and their flavonoid actives into a position of lasting respect and opportunity.
Melanie Bush is vice president of science and research at Artemis International. With over 15 years of experience in the company, her responsibilities span several departments including quality assurance, R&D and technical sales support. She enjoys spearheading new research in the field of dark berry extracts and communicating the ever-evolving science of berry phytonutrients.
- Krawitz C et al. “Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses.” BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Feb 25;11:16.
- Joseph SV et al. “Berries: anti-inflammatory effects in humans.” J Agric Food Chem. 2014 May 7;62(18):3886-903.
- Park S et al. “Aronia melanocarpa and its components demonstrate antiviral activity against influenza viruses.” Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. 2013 Oct 11;440(1):14-19.
- Ikuta K et al. “Anti-influenza virus activity of two extracts of the blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum L.) from New Zealand and Poland.” Fukushima J Med Sci. 2013;59(1):35-8.
- Tiralongo E et al. “Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travellers: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Nutrients. 2016 Mar 24;8(4):182.
- Hawkins J et al. “Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: a meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials.” Complement Ther Med. 2019 Feb;42:361-365.
- Swaminathan K et al. “Binding of a natural anthocyanin inhibitor to influenza neuraminidase by mass spectrometry.” Anal Bioanal Chem. 2013 Aug;405(20):6563-72.
- Kinoshita E et al. “Anti-influenza virus effects of elderberry juice and its fractions.” Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2012;76(9):1633-8.