Aronia: the Antioxidant Queen

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple decades, you’ve probably heard that berries are incredible for your health. And what makes them so great is their heavy load of antioxidants.

What exactly is an antioxidant? For that, let’s take a little trip back to Chemistry 101!

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You may remember that every molecule consists of a nucleus surrounded by electron fields. The outer orbit must consist of paired electrons to be considered stable. If there is a solitary electron, the molecule is called a free radical, and the free radical will go on a relentless mission in search of another electron to become more stable. To obtain that electron, it must steal it from another molecule, which creates another free radical. And so the cycle repeats. All this electron-theft at lightning speed causes damage on a cellular level, resulting in DNA mutations and disruptions in cell signaling and fluidity.

So where do these free radicals come from, you might wonder.

Some free radicals are from endogenous sources, meaning from inside the body. They are a result of the body performing its everyday functions, like producing energy, detoxifying, cleaning cells, and fighting disease. You can think of them like the exhaust from a car: it simply can’t operate without producing some byproduct.

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Other free radicals are from exogenous sources, which come from outside the body. Some common sources of these free radicals include cigarette smoke, environmental pollutants, radiation, industrial solvents, certain drugs, and heavily processed foods. While humans have always dealt with endogenous free radicals, we’ve been facing exogenous sources at a rapidly growing rate ever since the age of industrialization. Coincidentally, also since industrialization, we’ve been losing access to the very thing that counters these free radicals: antioxidants.

  Corn’s ancestor, teosinte

Corn’s ancestor, teosinte

This antioxidant loss has actually been happening since the early agricultural days, ever since humans began hybridizing crops to develop better-tasting foods. While plant breeders were rearing sweeter and juicier varieties of nearly everything, they were unwittingly doing so at the sacrifice of valuable phytonutrients. An example of this can be seen in tomatoes. Its wild ancestor, a berry-sized fruit from the highlands of Peru, contained an estimated fifteen times the amount of lycopene compared to today’s supermarket tomato [1]. Or take corn, a descendant of teosinte. This wild grass native to Mexico contained a single row of no more than twelve kernels, comprised of about 30% protein and 2% sugar. Compare that to today’s supersweet cultivars, with less than 4% protein and up to 40% sugar [1]! A recent study found that our modern plump, juicy corn contains on average about one-fifth the total phenolic compounds and antioxidant activity as that found in teosinte [2]. Similar examples exist in the progression of just about every wild plant to its modern-day cultivar. And things got even worse through the rise of the global food industry, as foods had to adapt traits to hold up against all the handling and transportation. Once again, phytonutrients were traded out for durability. So here we are now: needing more antioxidants than ever before, and ironically receiving less than ever from our foods.

Antioxidants play a crucial role in the body: they donate electrons to stabilize free radicals. Ideally, we want as many free radicals countered by antioxidants as possible. When these two things are out of balance -- specifically, when there are more free radicals than the antioxidants can handle -- the body undergoes what is called oxidative stress, which causes damage to tissues throughout the body. Oxidative stress has been strongly linked to chronic and degenerative conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer [3]. Essentially, aging is the direct result of oxidative stress, a condition which cannot be avoided, but can likely be mitigated through an antioxidant-rich diet.

What kind of foods have antioxidants?

The short answer is, any pigmented food. The color of a food can actually be a pretty good indicator of the types of antioxidants inside, which supply different healing benefits for the body. Blue and purple foods typically are rich in anthocyanins, which are generally associated with cardiovascular health, while yellows and oranges indicate the presence of beta-carotene, which is related to vision and immune function.

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Antioxidant load is measured on a scale of ORAC units -- Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity -- originally developed by the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health. Berries can usually be found near the top of the list in terms of antioxidant load, standing among the herbs and spices. They are followed by various nuts and seeds, legumes, colorful fruits and vegetables, green tea, dark chocolate, and red wine [4].

Among the berries, aronia, also known as chokeberry, stands out as an antioxidant superstar. It has an ORAC value of 16,062 μ mol TE/100g, higher than that of elderberry, blueberry, blackberry, currant, red raspberry, strawberry, and cranberry. Its key polyphenol is a class of flavonoids known as anthocyanins. This blue and purple pigment in plants exhibits powerful antioxidant activity, protecting the body’s tissues against oxidative stress [5, 6, 7], and also plays an important role in cardiovascular health. Studies have indicated that consuming chokeberry juice can lower serum total cholesterol, LDL and triglyceride levels, while raising HDL (the good cholesterol) [8]. They have also shown potential to lower blood pressure [9] and improve health parameters following myocardial infarction [10]. Also, due to their positive effects on hemoglobin A1c and their potential to lower fasting glucose levels, aronia berries seem to play a role in supporting healthy blood sugar and insulin response [11]. Traditionally, aronia berries were used by the Potawatomi Native Americans to cure colds [12], and there is some preliminary research to suggest there may be some agents in these berries that support the body’s immune response [7, 13].

So what is aronia, anyway?

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There are two main species of the aronia plant, also known as chokeberry: Aronia melanocarpa and Aronia arbutifolia. It is a deciduous shrub that belongs to the Rosaceae family (along with rose, apple, hawthorn, cherry, peach, plum, almond, and many more). Its clusters of white flowers in spring turn to blue-black autumn berries, about the size of blueberries [14]. The aronia plant is native to eastern North America. Since migrating to Europe in the early 1900s, it is now commonly cultivated in Germany, Russia, and other parts of eastern Europe [6]. In its raw form, the aronia berry has an extremely sour and astringent taste, hence the common name “chokeberry”. To enhance its palatability, it is commonly prepared into syrups, jams, jellies, blended fruit juices, and wine.

We partner with a family farm here in the US for our aronia products. They were actually introduced to the aronia berry just a couple decades ago, at a food conference in New Orleans, while sampling a “superfood” juice that contained aronia berries from Poland, among other exotic fruits like acai and goji. Knowing that aronia was native to North America, they couldn’t make sense of it being imported from the other side of the globe. Troubled by the unsustainability of exotic superfoods, they decided to start growing aronia themselves, becoming America’s first aronia berry farm. Their head farmer has since become the Johnny Appleseed of aronia, planting bushes across the Midwest, and teaching others how to make a business out of it.

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Because of their commitment to community and the environment, we are proud to partner with this farm. From their gorgeous biodiverse organic farmland, we receive fresh, high-quality aronia berries, which we immediately freeze-dry to retain maximum nutritional potency. Our freeze-dried aronia powder is available in two convenient, easy-to-use forms: capsules and liquid extract, and it is also blended into a few of our compound formulas: Infla-prin, Nutrigenomic Super Berry, and Blood Sugar Support. It is our mission to get this delicious nutritional powerhouse into more hands!

Sources:

  1. Robinson J. Eating on the Wild Side: the Missing Link to Optimum Health. New York: Little, Brown and Company; 2014.

  2. Zavala-López M, López-Tavera E, Figueroa-Cárdenas JDD, Serna-Saldívar SO, García-Lara S. Screening of major phenolics and antioxidant activities in teosinte populations and modern maize types. Journal of Cereal Science. 2018;79:276-285.

  3. Haytowitz D, Bhagwat S. USDA Database for the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) of Selected Foods, Release 2. May 2010.

  4. Chokeberry (Aronia Berries), Raw. Superfoodly. https://www.superfoodly.com/orac-value/chokeberry-raw/. Accessed September 10, 2018.

  5. Kowalczyk E, Fijałkowski P, Kura M. The influence of anthocyanins from Aronia melanocarpa on selected parameters of oxidative stress and microelements contents in men with hypercholesterolemia. Polski Merkuriusz Lekarski. 2005;19(113):651-653.

  6. Kulling S, Rawel H. Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – A Review on the Characteristic Components and Potential Health Effects. Planta Medica. 2008;74(13):1625-1634.

  7. All American Berries Potent Foods For Lasting Health. Eclectic Institute. https://www.eclecticherb.com/all-american-berries. Accessed September 10, 2018.

  8. Skoczynska A, Jedrychowska I, Poreba R, Affelska-Jercha A, Turczyn B, Wojakowska A et al. Influence of chokeberry juice on arterial blood pressure and lipid parameters in men with mild hypercholesterolemia. Pharmacol Rep 2007; 59: 177 – 82

  9. Skoczynska A, Jedrychowska I, Poreba R, Affelska A, Turczyn B. The influence of chokeberry juice on arterial blood pressure. Pharmacol Rep 2007; 59 (Suppl. 1): 66

  10. Naruszewicz M, Laniewska I, Millo B, Dluzniewski M. Combination therapy of statin with flavonoids rich extract from chokeberry fruits enhanced reduction in cardiovascular risk markers in patients after myocardial infarction (MI). Atherosclerosis 2007; 194: e179 – 84

  11. Simeonov SB, Botushanov NP, Karahanian EB, Pavlova MB, Husianitis HK, Troev DM. Effects of Aronia melanocarpa juice as part of the dietary regimen in patients with diabetes mellitus. Folia Med (Plovdiv) 2002; 44: 20 – 3

  12. 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(2):255-269.

  13. Handeland M, Grude N, Torp T, et al. Black chokeberry juice (Aronia melanocarpa) reduces incidences of urinary tract infection among nursing home residents in the long term - a pilot study. Nutr. Res., 34:518-525, 2014.

  14. Aronia melanocarpa. Missouri Botanical Garden. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=j420. Accessed September 10, 2018..