Food as Medicine: Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, Rosaceae)

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), also known as aronia berry, is a member of the economically important rose (Rosaceae) family, which includes other pome-producing plants like apple (Malus spp.), pear (Pyrus spp.), and quince (Cydonia oblonga). A pome is a fruit produced by the Malinae subtribe within Rosaceae. The genus Aronia includes two species of shrubs that are both native to North America: A. melanocarpa (black chokeberry) and A. arbutifolia (red chokeberry).1 Aronia melanocarpa grows to a height of 4-8 feet (1.2-2.4 meters) and is a cold-hardy, deciduous, thicket-forming shrub that prefers full sun and woodland edges.2,3 Black chokeberry’s natural range extends from the northeastern part of North America and the Great Lakes region to the Appalachian Mountains.1

In spring, black chokeberry shrubs produce clusters of white-to-pink flowers that are 2-2.5 inches long and each form 10-15 pea-sized, purple-black pomes after pollination has occurred.2,3 The plant’s finely toothed medium-green leaves are glossy and hairless and, in autumn, turn to bright yellow-orange-red as the fruits ripen in late August and early September.2,4 Heavy with juice, the dark purple pomes drop from the plant shortly after ripening.1,2

Historical and Commercial Uses

Historically, black chokeberry was used by the Forest County Potawatomi tribe.1 They called the fruits nîki’mînûn or sakwako’mînûn and used them to make a tea for treating colds.1,5 In the northeastern United States, both the Potawatomi and Abnaki tribes used the fruit as food.6 The berries were used in the preparation of pemmican, a nutritious and long-lasting foodstuff prepared from animal fat, dried powdered meat, and sometimes fruit.1,2 An ethnobotanical account from 1933 noted that the Forest Potawatomi “eat the berries from this plant but they are entirely too bitter to suit the white man.”5 Among North American settlers, both the berries and the bark were used as an astringent.

In the early 1900s, cultivars of black chokeberry were introduced to the Soviet Union and various European countries, where they continue to be grown extensively as a fruit crop. The most commonly grown cultivars include “Viking,” “Nero,” and “Aron.”1 Compared to wild black chokeberry plants, these commercial cultivars produce more berries that are larger and sweeter.7 Each mature cultivated Aronia shrub can produce an average of 25-35 pounds of fruit.2,3 By the late 1940s, large-scale commercial cultivation of black chokeberry in the Soviet Union produced fruit for juice, syrup, jams and jellies, wine, and liqueur.1,2,7,8

The juice of black chokeberries contains high levels of anthocyanins, which give the berries their red-purple color, and flavonoids, which, aside from numerous health benefits, provide natural preservative properties as well as a source of a natural colorant used in the food industry.1,7 In fact, black chokeberries are one of the richest sources of anthocyanins, particularly cyanidin derivatives.7 After the juice is pressed from the berries, the remaining pomace of black chokeberries still contains significant amounts of anthocyanins and can be dehydrated and repurposed to create functional food preparations.1,7 Black chokeberry can also be used as a natural preservative of other fruit and fruit-based preparations by preventing α-tocopherol and unsaturated fats present in food products from oxidizing.1 The berries are commonly blended with other, more pleasant-tasting fruits such as black currant (Ribes nigrum, Grossulariaceae) in commercial products.1,7

In Russia and Europe, both the fruit and bark of Aronia shrubs have been used to treat hypertension and atherosclerosis.1 Additionally, black chokeberry preparations were used to treat vitamin deficiency, increase stomach acid production, and prevent hemorrhoids.1 In the pharmaceutical industry, black chokeberry extracts are used in syrups and dietary supplements.1

Nutrients and Phytochemicals

Black chokeberries are a rich source of anthocyanins and procyanidins (PCs), which contribute to their sour and strongly astringent taste. The berries also contain amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside common in rose family plants and that is responsible for the bitter-almond smell of fresh berries.1 Both the taste and smell limit the use of black chokeberry as a mono-preparation in commercial juice or fruit nectar production.7

Despite the low bioavailability of polyphenolic compounds, many are converted to bioactive derivatives in vivo.8 Unlike other flavonoids, anthocyanins are absorbed, intact, in the stomach and large intestine, undergo first-pass metabolism, and then enter systemic circulation as metabolites.9 In fact, anthocyanin metabolites are found in the bloodstream at much higher concentrations than their parent compounds and thus may be responsible for health benefits attributed to anthocyanins.9 The primary anthocyanin metabolites derived from compounds that are present in black chokeberries are a mixture of cyanidin glycosides.1

The red-pigmented anthocyanin derivatives exert antioxidant activity by scavenging damaging free radicals within the body.8 This not only reduces inflammation and decreases activation of enzymes that contribute to cardiovascular stress and damage but also has far-reaching effects on the liver, cardiovascular system, and cancer cells.1,7,8

Other phenolic compounds present in black chokeberries include chlorogenic and neochlorogenic acid and small amounts of tannins.1 Total phenolic content of dried fruit depends on variety, cultivation conditions, and time of harvest but typically ranges from 2-8 g per 100 g dry weight.1

Black chokeberries contain the B vitamins thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), and pyridoxine (B6), as well as vitamin C.1,7 Although mineral content varies with processing, the predominant minerals in the berries,  are potassium and zinc, and small amounts of calcium, magnesium, and iron.1,7 Black chokeberries are low in pectin and contain approximately 5.5 g dietary fiber per 100 g fresh weight. They also contain sorbitol, sugar alcohol and common sugar substitute that has a weak, non-stimulant laxative effect.7

Modern Research and Potential Health Benefits

Generally, black chokeberry was considered a food ingredient more than herbal medicine. However, when the health benefits of plant polyphenols, especially anthocyanins, were discovered, researchers became interested in black chokeberry. Black chokeberries have a higher amount of phenolic constituents (e.g., anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, and phenolic acids) per serving than most other berries.1 The major known pharmacological actions of black chokeberries include cardioprotective effects on metabolic markers of disease and aging, as well as chemopreventive properties.1

Antioxidant Effects

Studies have shown that black chokeberries have a higher antioxidant capacity than other common berries such as blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum, Ericaceae), cranberries (V. macrocarpon), lingonberries (V. vitis-idaea), elderberries (Sambucus nigra, Adoxaceae), black currants, red currants (Ribes rubrum), gooseberries (R. grossularia), blackberries (Rubus fruticosus, Rosaceae), red raspberries (R. idaeus), and strawberries (Fragaria ananassa, Rosaceae).1 Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) values are commonly used by nutraceutical processors as an indicator of antioxidant potential of fruit juices despite being based solely on in vitro evidence. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ORAC values list, fresh black chokeberries have 15,280 µmol TE/100 g, which is three times the value of blueberries and blackberries and 1.5 times the value of black currants and cranberries.3

The antioxidant activity of black chokeberry is predominantly attributed to its polyphenolic compounds.7 However, the presence of vitamins C and E, beta carotene, zinc, copper, and selenium in the fruits amplify their potential antioxidant properties.10 In addition to scavenging free radicals, black chokeberry appears to suppress the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), inhibit prooxidant activity, and restore antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase (GPx).7

Black chokeberry extracts can be effective at alleviating oxidative stress, which can be a response to serious diseases or a result of physical exercise.1 In one case, rowers who took black chokeberry juice experienced significantly less exercise-induced damage to red blood cells compared to a control group.8 In addition to lowering the concentration of Thiobarbituric Acid Reactive Substances (TBARS), consumption of black chokeberry juice or extract is associated with higher levels of GPx and SOD, improved antioxidant status, and reduced overall oxidative stress as well as lipid peroxidation.1

Cardioprotective Effects

The consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Black chokeberries contain many phytochemicals and are rich sources of polyphenols (e.g., phenolic acids), flavonoids (e.g., anthocyanins, flavanols, flavonols, catechins), and proanthocyanidins that act as antioxidants and venotonics, strengthening arteries and veins.7

In Eastern Europe, black chokeberry is recommended as a nutritional supplement to help manage arterial hypertension.7 Multiple trials have correlated black chokeberry supplementation with statistically significant improvements in biomarkers associated with cardiovascular health.7 Research has confirmed that polyphenolic constituents present in black chokeberry can protect and restore endothelial cells, reduce platelet aggregation, and have vasoprotective and antihypertensive properties.1,7 Black chokeberry’s primary protective mechanism is the inhibition of angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE).7

In a study by Sikora et al., patients with high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome who supplemented with Aronox® (JBKLAB; Gyeonggi, South Korea), a standardized dietary supplement containing 60 mg of total Aronia polyphenols, experienced a 25% reduction in ACE after one month, which increased to a 30% reduction after taking a 100-mg capsule three times daily for two months.7

In addition to standardized supplement preparations, black chokeberry juice, and juice blends also have been tested in clinical trials. In one clinical trial, 23 participants aged 33-67 with untreated stage I hypertension (systolic pressure between 130 and 139 mmHg or diastolic pressure between 80 and 89 mmHg) who consumed 200 mL of organic black chokeberry juice daily for four weeks experienced a statistically significant decrease in blood pressure.11 Another study examined the effects of the proprietary juice blend MANA-Blue® (Tine SA; Oslo, Norway) on blood pressure. MANA-Blue, which contains 67.7% red grape (Vitis vinifera, Vitaceae), 14.5% black chokeberry, 12% cherry (Prunus spp., Rosaceae), and 5.8% bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), was used daily (500 mL/day) by 134 hypertensive and non-hypertensive participants between the ages of 50 and 70 for 12 weeks. After six weeks, patients consuming the juice blend experienced a significant decrease in blood pressure, which was reduced slightly more between weeks six and 12 compared to patients receiving placebo.12

Black chokeberry preparations also have been studied for their ability to lower cholesterol levels. Anthocyanins in black chokeberries can strongly inhibit low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, which is the key mechanism of atherosclerosis.7 Additionally, black chokeberries contain a significant amount of niacin, which works synergistically with anthocyanins to lower blood lipids.1 When 58 healthy men with untreated mild hypercholesterolemia consumed black chokeberry juice or dry extracts for six weeks, their total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels were reduced significantly and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels increased, reducing the overall risk of developing atherosclerosis.1 A study of 25 patients with metabolic syndrome found that supplementation with black chokeberry extract (100 mg three times per day) for two months resulted in a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure, LDL cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels.7 A study of 58 male patients with hypercholesterolemia examined the effects of daily consumption of 250 mL of black chokeberry juice over a six-week period. At the end of the study, there were significant decreases in blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. Blood glucose levels also were reduced significantly, while HDL levels increased.10

Black chokeberry extracts and juices may inhibit oxidative stress and endothelial inflammation, both of which contribute to cardiovascular disorders.10 In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel trial that included 44 patients (11 women and 33 men) who had suffered a heart attack, the effects of combination therapy of statin medication and black chokeberry extract (85 mg three times per day) were evaluated. Patients who received the combined treatment over a six-week period had significantly lower LDL levels and reductions in oxidative stress and endothelial inflammation compared to patients who received only statin medications.1 Additionally, black chokeberry extract has been demonstrated to be more effective than resveratrol and grape seed extract at decreasing platelet aggregation in people with hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes mellitus, and tobacco smokers reducing their risk of heart attack or stroke.10

Antidiabetic Effects/Metabolic Syndrome

Regular consumption of black chokeberry preparations has been shown to improve both glucose and carbohydrate metabolism.7 The high anthocyanin content may help prevent obesity and the onset of diabetes by reducing sugar and lipid absorption in the digestive system.7 Black chokeberry can inhibit α-glucosidase and α-amylase, reduce mucosal maltase and sucrose activity in the small intestine, stimulate the uptake of glucose, and increase insulin secretion.1,7

In a clinical trial involving 21 patients with type II diabetes mellitus (T2DM), patients who consumed 200 mL of sugar-free black chokeberry juice over a three-month period experienced lower levels of fasting blood glucose, total cholesterol, and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) in the blood compared to the control group.1,10 These results indicate that regular consumption of black chokeberry preparations may benefit T2DM patients as well as those with metabolic syndrome, which includes a predisposition to developing cardiovascular disease. Another clinical trial examined the effects of 100 mL of black chokeberry juice three times daily on 25 patients with metabolic syndrome for eight weeks. The results showed significant decreases in blood pressure, blood lipids, and TBARS, as well as increased antioxidant enzyme activities in red blood cells.10

Chemopreventive and Radioprotective Effects

The phytonutrients contained in berries have long been of interest to researchers because of their ability to protect cells and prevent DNA damage that may lead to cancer. The high levels of anthocyanins found in black chokeberries exhibit stronger chemopreventive effects than grape and blueberry preparations. Mechanisms that contribute to black chokeberry’s chemopreventive effects include preventing oxidation, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, inducing detoxification enzymes, regulating immune system function, and inducing apoptosis of cancer cells.7,10 However, no known clinical trials confirm the observed in vitro effects of black chokeberry on human cancer cells. Evidence also suggests black chokeberry extracts may have synergistic effects when used concomitantly with certain anticancer drugs and may also protect healthy cells from oxidative stress that occurs during chemotherapy treatments.10 In a study of 42 women (19 to 65 years old) with breast cancer, the use of black chokeberry extract combined with apple pectin during the course of postoperative radiation therapy resulted in a significant increase in CD4 and CD8 T-cell counts, indicating that black chokeberry extracts possess important immunomodulatory activities.1

The anthocyanins present in black chokeberry extract have been examined for their ability to protect, both internally and externally, from damage resulting from UV and gamma-radiation exposure. Black chokeberry polyphenols can be absorbed through the skin, where they can exert anti-aging, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.10 Black chokeberry extracts and topical gels appear to be able to protect the skin from UVB radiation and reduce lipid peroxidation as well as leukocyte levels.1,10

Other Potential Beneficial Effects

Although native to North America, black chokeberry has long been underused in the United States. Traditional use of black chokeberry tea to treat colds has not been supported scientifically. However, black chokeberry has been shown to inhibit the influenza A virus. It is likely that black chokeberry alleviates oxidative stress symptoms as well as inflammation commonly reported during viral infections, such as the common cold and influenza.1

Black chokeberry also exhibits antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Additionally, it appears to be able to inhibit biofilm formation, which means that it may be an effective therapy for urinary tract infections when used with antibiotics.7

Black chokeberry extract may also have hepatoprotective effects. In vivo studies demonstrated that black chokeberry extract decreased levels of cadmium and bilirubin and reduced aminotransferase activity. Additionally, the dietary fiber from black chokeberries can weakly bind to cadmium, lowering its absorption in the digestive tract and thus reducing heavy metal toxicity.1

Consumer Considerations

The growing awareness of the importance of consuming antioxidant-containing foods coupled with the substantial clinical evidence that has accumulated over recent years strongly support the numerous health benefits of regular consumption of black chokeberry preparations.3 Numerous studies confirm the potential of black chokeberry to prevent chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, without adverse side effects.3,7 Commercially, according to a 2016 review, the most common black chokeberry extract is Aronox, which is used in the production of juices and syrups as well as dietary supplements in the form of pills and tablets.10

Due to urbanization and agricultural pressures, most of the black chokeberry’s native habitat has been lost.3 Fortunately, the commercial demand for black chokeberries has led to the planting of black chokeberry shrubs as a sustainable and profitable perennial cash crop in the Midwest.3 Black chokeberry shrubs are self-fertile and do not require a pollinator in order to set fruit.3 Similar to apples and other fruit-bearing crops, black chokeberry shrubs require an extended period of cold weather in order to produce flowers and thus set fruit. Growers must manage two crops at once as the next season’s fruit buds develop while the current season’s fruits ripen.3

Additionally, the abundant berry production and ornamental value of black chokeberry shrubs have made them a popular choice in both urban and commercial landscapes, where hardiness zones range from zone 3 (-40°F) to zone 8 (10-20°F).4 These shrubs are widely adaptable and can tolerate drought and compacted soil with poor drainage.3,4 Black chokeberry shrubs are long-lived and can remain productive for several decades, making them a sustainable source of food and medicine.3

Nutrient Profile13

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 100 grams fruit)

47 calories
1.4 g protein
9.6 g carbohydrate
0.5 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 100 grams of fruit)

Excellent source of:

Vitamin C: 21 mg (35% DV)
Manganese: 0.6 mg (32% DV)

Very good source of:

Vitamin K: 13.6 mcg (17% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 5.3 g (14% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.2 mg (11.8% DV)

Good source of:

Iron: 1.4 mg (8% DV)
Vitamin E: 1.6 mg (8% DV)
Vitamin A: 350 IU (7% DV)
Folate: 24 mcg (6% DV)
Magnesium: 21 mg (5% DV)

Also provides:

Riboflavin: 0.06 mg (4.6% DV)
Niacin: 0.7 mg (4.4% DV)
Calcium: 30 mg (3% DV)
Potassium: 105 mg (3% DV)
Thiamin: 0.03 mg (2.5% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Recipe: Black Chokeberry-Coconut Smoothie
Adapted from Superberries14

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup frozen black chokeberries
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon honey, or to taste

Directions:

  1. Puree all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Serve immediately.

Image credits (top to bottom):

Black chokeberry. Photo courtesy of Healthshare.
Illustration of black chokeberry from N.L. Britton and A. Brown. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. New York, NY: Charles Scribner and Sons; 1913.
A cluster of black chokeberries. Photo courtesy of Pawvic.
Black chokeberries on the stem. Image ©2019 Steven Foster.
Black chokeberries on the stem. Image ©2019 Steven Foster.

References

  1. Kokotkiewicz A, Jaremicz Z, Luczkiewicz M. Aronia plants: a review of traditional use, biological activities, and perspectives for modern medicine. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2010;13:255-269.
  2. USDA NRCS Plant Guide. Black chokeberry. Available at: https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_arme6.pdf. Accessed August 3, 2019.
  3. Aronia berry. Agricultural Marketing Resource Center website. Available at: www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/fruits/aronia-berries. Accessed August 23, 2019.
  4. Aronia. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension: Agriculture website. Available at: https://extension.umaine.edu/agriculture/aronia/plant-description-and-habitat/. Accessed on August 3, 2019.
  5. Engels G, Brinckmann J. Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) Family: Rosaceae. HerbalGram. 2014;101:1-5. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue101/HG101-herbpro-choke.html. Accessed July 27, 2019.
  6. Moerman DE. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1998.
  7. Jurikova T, Mlcek J, Skrovankova S, et al. Fruits of black chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa in the prevention of chronic diseases. Molecules. 2017;22:944.
  8. Kulling SE, Rawel HM. Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) — A review on the characteristic components and potential health effects. Planta Medica. 2008;74:1625-1634.
  9. Fang J. Bioavailability of anthocyanins. Drug Metabolism Reviews. 2014;46(4):508-20.
  10. Borowska S, Brzoska M. Chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) and their products as a possible means for the prevention and treatment of noncommunicable diseases and unfavorable health effects due to exposure to xenobiotics. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 2016;15:982-1017.
  11. Kardum N, Milovanovic B, Savikin K, et al. Beneficial effects of polyphenol-rich chokeberry juice consumption on blood pressure level and lipid status in hypertensive subjects. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2015;18(11):1-8.
  12. Tjelle TE, Holtung L, Bøhn SK, et al. Polyphenol-rich juices reduce blood pressure measures in a randomized controlled trial in high normal and hypertensive volunteers. British Journal of Nutrition. 2015;114(07):1054-1063.
  13. Aronia Berry Nutrition Facts and Calories. Self Nutrition Data website. Available at: https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/3081828/2. Accessed September 7, 2019.
  14. Aronia Coconut Smoothie. Superberries website. Available at: www.superberries.com/AroniaCoconutSmoothie. Accessed September 7, 2019.

 TE refers to Trolox equivalent. Trolox is a compound used as a reference in antioxidant assays; higher TE values indicate stronger antioxidant effects.

2 thoughts on “Food as Medicine: Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, Rosaceae)

Comments are closed.