Long before there were doctors or scientists, sick people were using the elderberry to make themselves feel better. It’s been a staple of folk medicine for millennia, and it has often been used to treat people suffering from a plethora of ailments. The elderberry is the dark purple berry of the European or black elder tree (scientific name Sambucus nigra), which grows in the warmer climates of Asia, Europe, North America and Northern Africa. Today, the elderberry is promoted as a dietary supplement to help in the treatment of colds, flu, and other respiratory conditions. It’s the basis of a multi-million dollar market of pills, powders, juices, syrups, gummies, lozenges and other forms of nutritional supplements. Meanwhile, researchers are continuing to investigate other possible health benefits of the elderberry, potentially creating opportunities for new products based on this ancient superfruit. [This article, “Respect Your Elderberries: A Medicine Cabinet In One Amazing Superfruit” was originally published in HealthXWire]
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Hippocrates was a fan of elderberries
Elderberries were already a common remedy when the Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, started his practice in the fourth century B.C.E. He described the berry as “a medicine cabinet” because of its widespread use for various conditions. A few centuries later another Greek physician, Dioscorides of Anazarbus, prescribed the use of wine made from the elderberry root as a cure for snake bites.
Elderberries have also been used in many other cultures around the globe in a variety of medicinal applications. In ancient Egypt, they were used to heal burn victims and also to help people improve their complexions by eliminating wrinkles and curing acne. Indigenous people in North America used the berries to treat fever and rheumatism.
Devils, witches and evil spirits – oh my!
Many of the medical discoveries of the Greeks and Romans had been forgotten by the time the Middle Ages rolled around, but the curative powers of the elderberry remained a vital part of European cultures. Diseases were often blamed on supernatural forces during those superstitious times, and the benefits of elderberry products were credited to the plant’s supposed supernatural power to ward off demons and other evil spirits. Many people believed that the soul must be cured before the body could be healed.
In some European countries such as Denmark and Latvia, people believed that a good spirit lived in the trunk of the elderberry bush, and that allowed it to overcome the diseases brought by evil spirits. Elderberries were also used in some other regions as a way for people to protect themselves from witches and other alleged servants of Satan.
Breathing easier with superfruits
Modern researchers have long since rejected the notion of diseases being caused by devils and demons, and they have returned to scientific methods espoused by Hippocrates and his followers. They have carefully analyzed the properties of elderberries and found that they contain many healthful components. Aside from being a good source of dietary fiber and potassium, elderberries contain significant amounts of:
∙ Vitamin A
∙ Vitamin B6
∙ Vitamin C
Each one-half cup serving of elderberries contains only 53 calories and provides 13 grams of carbohydrates and five grams of fiber – all without any sugar.
Studies of elderberries have shown a connection with improved outcomes for patients suffering from influenza by stimulating the immune system’s chemical responses. This can lead to relief from respiratory symptoms and the possible speeding up of the recovery process. Another study showed that elderberries might shorten the length and reduce the severity of a cold. These findings jibe with the benefits described by the ancient Greek physicians as well as untold generations of folk medicine practitioners. According to the National Institutes of Health website, a review of these studies concluded that further study of these benefits is warranted.
Superfruits in the Pandemic panic
The connection between elderberry products and improvement in patients with respiratory problems led researchers to take a closer look at these properties in early 2020 as the Coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly around the globe. In the desperate months before a vaccine and other treatments were developed, many people turned to elderberry products in hopes of lessening the effects of COVID-19. Although the berry didn’t turn out to be the panacea many had hoped for, the attention did help spur sales of elderberry based remedies.
The belief that elderberries promote good health led to marketing them as a “superfruit” and increased demand in recent years. The market for elderberry supplements is significant and is expected to grow by millions of dollars over the next several years. In the current nutritional supplement market, elderberries are the foundation of a wide variety of products – many of them organic. One innovative manufacturer is Elderwise Organics, a mom-and-pop operation that is finding new ways to process the ancient berries into different products. Elderwise began with natural products such as its elderberry syrup made in Elko New Market, Minnesota, and has expanded its offerings to include products made from other superfoods such as sea moss.
Elderwise Organics calls itself a little company with a big heart, high standards and a big dream. Its headquarters is a 10-acre homestead that includes chickens, ducks and peacocks. The family that owns and operates the company homeschools their children and are regular users of the products they sell. They frequently share stories about their family’s health journey on the company’s website.
Holly Overcashier, CEO of Elderwise Organics, says she and her husband built the company from the ground up – developing a unique line of organic nutritional supplements, designing the packaging of those products, taking promotional pictures, and setting up the website.
“We started this with a dream in our hearts and a passion to help other people in their health needs,” she said. “Each ingredient has been hand-selected for our blends as each has a distinct role in supporting the body. I love trying everything out and finding just the right blend of ingredients. All of our elderberry recipes are tested in my own kitchen by trial and error – what tastes good and what doesn’t – and to figure out what ingredients give a better outcome and what ingredients don’t.”
Turning away from the downside with elderberries
Whether they are big or small, the companies that market elderberry-based products do need to take certain precautions. For instance, the NIH warns that elderberries must be cooked before they are consumed in any form. Raw unripe elderberries and other parts of the elder tree, such as the leaves and stem, contain toxic substances that can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately, cooking eliminates these toxins and lets people enjoy the benefits of the berries without the unpleasant side effects.
New products, new markets
While the elderberry is an ancient remedy, many of the products now being made from it are the result of recent formulations, and the methods used to market those products are also a combination of the old and the new. In a throwback to the days of small-town friendliness, customers can now get to know the people who are making their nutritional supplements, and they are forming the kind of personal relationships that are impossible to forge with large multinational corporations. Of course, it takes the latest in computer and networking technology to make this personal approach possible on a large scale.
These marketing techniques are allowing small businesses to have a big impact on the nation’s economy in general. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that companies with fewer than 100 employees account for almost 70 million jobs and add more than $3 billion to the economy through their payrolls.
The government recognizes the importance of small businesses, and it offers numerous grants and loans to help keep these companies afloat. Special assistance was given out during the COVID-19 pandemic, and these lifelines made the difference between solvency and bankruptcy for many of the operations. The Small Business Administration oversees these and many other assistance programs that were credited with saving millions of jobs during the worst part of the economic downturn. The SBA’s overall budget is more than $850 million per year, and its outreach includes educational programs designed to help new entrepreneurs learn how to start and manage their companies.
Small businesses that make and market nutritional supplements have at least one distinct advantage over large corporations – the personal touch. Selecting which blend of vitamins, minerals and other ingredients works best for each customer is an individualized decision, and many consumers are reaching out for a human face to connect with those products. Just as farmers’ markets have become popular in recent years, and the farm-to-table movement has sprung up in the restaurant industry, the mom and-pop companies that produce and market supplements appeal to a clientele that craves individual attention.
Keeping it personal
It’s a careful attention to detail, and the personal involvement of a company’s leadership, that makes small businesses stand out in the crowded marketplace. Most of them feature blogs on their websites dealing with a variety of health issues, and they often include podcasts as well as pages for customers to ask questions or post their own testimonials about the products they have used. These individualized educational features give the websites a feeling of a communal marketplace similar to the old general stores where neighbors could share experiences and give each other advice.
While these small operations have learned to mimic the homey atmosphere of past merchants, they have also incorporated modern business techniques to meet their customers’ expectations. Most feature products that are ethically harvested and sourced, that are certified to be organic and contain no genetically modified organisms, and that are not treated with chemicals and preservatives to prolong shelf life.
Small businesses can also focus on the human side of their products’ development and manufacture. Instead of photos of large industrial plants, they show the faces and hands of the workers who work in smaller facilities producing the supplements that make up their brands. The emphasis is on artisanal production techniques that employ human labor instead of machine harvesting and packaging.
With a little help from your friends (and competitors)
Elderberry products are just one portion of the burgeoning nutritional supplement market that shows no signs of slowing down in the foreseeable future. While that market continues to be a very competitive place, many of the small business owners already involved in it encourage other business people with similar passions to follow their dreams as well. “I just have this burning passion in my heart for young entrepreneurs like us who just want to get out of the grind and achieve their dreams,” said Ms. Overcashier of Elderwise Organics.
The Small Business Administration offers detailed assistance in how to open a new company, a process that involves planning, making key financial decisions and completing a series of legal activities. The basic outline given by the SBA on its website tells new companies to:
∙ Begin by conducting market research into your field of interest.
∙ Write a business plan that will serve as a roadmap for your new company. ∙ Determine ways to fund your business.
When those tasks are completed, it’s time to pick a location, choose a business structure, select a company name, and complete the necessary legal and tax paperwork. All of this may seem overwhelming at first, but free advice is available from numerous sources such as SCORE, your local small business development center, the Women’s Business Center or the Veterans Business Outreach Center.
Back to the berries…
The good news for businesses that are looking to capitalize on the popularity of elderberries is the expected growth in this part of the nutritional supplement industry. One business publication is predicting that the U.S. market for products derived from elderberries will expand by almost $110 million in the next four years. Most of the expected market growth will come from online sales, which are still smaller than the elderberries’ share of the in-store market for supplements.
One of the factors expected to drive this growth is the overall cultural shift in the U.S. and other industrialized countries towards healthier diets and lifestyles. One analyst links the popularity of elderberries and other superfoods to the growth of the vegan lifestyle, which was spurred by the sustainability crisis and animal agriculture. The increasing number of vegans has increased the demand for plant-based diets, including superfruits, vegetables, and nutritional supplements. As the vegan movement grows, the elderberry market should also continue to expand.
An even bigger impact on the popularity of elderberry supplements could result from future research into the berries themselves, If scientists are successful in finding evidence they contain more beneficial properties than have been proven so far, new markets could open and expand rapidly. Proponents of elderberries have a long list of possible benefits, including:
∙ Lowering cholesterol
∙ Reducing the risk of cancer
∙ Lowering the risk of heart disease
∙ Assisting in diabetes management
If even one of these potential benefits can be scientifically proven with empirical evidence, the popularity of elderberries could increase dramatically and expand the market exponentially. Or, to paraphrase Hippocrates, it wouldn’t do any harm to the business.