During cold and flu season, my wife prepares stovetop syrup from elderberries. Why is elderberry good for colds and flu when made into syrup, if it isn’t good when eaten raw?
The reason she cooks them is that raw or unripened elderberries contain potentially toxic compounds. Eating them could cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Take the case of Columbia University Professor of Philosophy Carol Rovane Ph.D. She made the news when forced to cancel a class. After eating some raw elderberries she’d grown, the professor thought she’d poisoned herself.
“It turns out they should be cooked!” she noted.
Dr. Rovanes’ raw elderberries contained the toxic cyanogenic glycoside sambunitrin. As a result, chewing them released hydrogen cyanide into her digestive tract.
However, processing the berries correctly reduces the cyanogenic glycosides to “acceptably safe levels.” Cooking is one way to accomplish this.
So what about cooked elderberries makes them worth the risk of consuming when they’re so dangerous in their raw form?
Let’s see what the research says.
Elderberry, Colds, and Flu: Two Trials, Contradictory Conclusions
Researchers from Queensland’s Griffith University, Gold Coast campus, developed a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of 312 economy class passengers on intercontinental flights averaging over 16 hours of flight time.
The trial’s goal was to answer the question, “Is elderberry good for colds and flu among airline passengers?”
They divided the passengers into two groups. Beginning ten days before their flights, One group took two 300 mg elderberry capsules each day. The other took placebo (fake) pills.
The day before departing, they upped their doses to three daily capsules (900 mg) and continued that consumption until four or five days after returning home.
After the trips, the researchers gathered the data on who’d gotten colds, how long they had them, and how severe their symptoms were.
While more of the placebo takers came down with colds, the number was insignificant. The significant differences were in the duration of the colds and the severity of their symptoms.
The placebo group’s colds lasted nearly a week (6.88 days), while the elderberry group recovered in 4.75 days. Getting rid of a cold two days sooner is nothing to sneeze at!
Even better, the elderberry benefits extended to symptoms. The participants judged the severity of their:
- sore throats
- nasal discharge
- nasal obstruction
They rated the severity on a scale of 0-3:
- 0 – absent
- 1 – mild
- 2 – moderate
- 3 – severe
Between the two groups, the outcome was night and day. The placebo takers’ severity rating totaled 583 – more than double that of the elderberry group’s total of 247!
Keep in mind that the researchers designed the trial, so the participants had no idea if they were getting the elderberry or the placebo capsules.
So in answering the question “Is elderberry good for colds and flu,” the Australian trial provided solid evidence that it is good for colds in airline passengers.
But what about flu in the larger population?
A 2020 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study took on the question “Is elderberry good for cold and flu” in 87 emergency room patients aged 5 or older.
The participants exhibiting clear influenza symptoms for two days began taking age-related doses of elderberry extract or a placebo for five days.
Those who requested it also received a standard daily dose of oseltamivir. It inhibits the spread of the flu virus in the body.
At the trial’s end, the researchers declared, “We found no evidence that elderberry benefits the duration or severity of influenza.”
They further acknowledged, “These results contradict the previously published studies on elderberry extract treatment of influenza.”
It isn’t uncommon for different studies of the same food to yield different results. However, each increases our knowledge base and builds our understanding of a specific ingredient’s potential benefits.
Why did the flu trial’s findings contradict those of the colds trial?
One noticeable difference is that the airplane passengers began taking elderberry ten days before their departure dates, potentially giving it time to reinforce their immune systems.
However, the emergency room study included children already a couple of days into their sickness before starting on elderberry.
So, where does that leave us?
If We Weigh All the Evidence, Is Elderberry Good for Colds and Flu?
The best way to sort out the airplane passenger /ER patient results conflict is to examine the best available balance of evidence! Fortunately, some researchers have already done this for us.
Three systematic reviews and meta-analyses have investigated the benefits of elderberry. What were their conclusions?
– This 2014 systematic review looked for scientific evidence concerning elderberries’ impact on several conditions, including:
- bacterial sinusitis
- cardiovascular disease risk
Of them, only influenza received a “B” rating (good scientific evidence). The rest of the conditions scored a “C” rating (unclear or conflicting scientific evidence).
– A 2019 meta-analysis reviewed randomized, controlled clinical trials on black elderberry and respiratory symptoms.
After analyzing all the available studies, they concluded, “Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms.”
– A 2021 systematic review concluded:
“Elderberry is a promising intervention for reducing the severity and duration of influenza and the common cold … it does not appear associated with serious adverse effects.”
So the best available evidence on the question “Is elderberry good for colds and flu?” provides a pretty clear answer: “YES!”
I’m just happy my wife knows how to cook it properly!