With the growing craze for superfoods such as Acai Berries, Goji Berries and Spirulina, there is a new potential superfoods-list topper: Aronia berries (Aronia melanocarpa). With articles citing such claims as, “Acai is a berry that has been in the headlines, but research reveals that it takes a backseat to a berry called Aronia” (Iowa State University Extension) and “Aronia berries contain very high levels of antioxidants — higher than acai, grapes, elderberries, blueberries, and other fruits” (Kansas State University Extension). An ingredient in the popular MonaVie health tonic, Aronia berries are a great food to add to your diet.
The Iowa State University Extensions reports on the health benefits of Aronia berries: “Each tiny berry of Aronia melanocarpa contains a powerhouse of antioxidants. Studies done in the U.S. and around the world indicate that the Aronia berry can benefit cardiovascular health, the digestive system, liver health, and muscle recovery after workouts.”
More specific research into just what makes Aronia berries antioxidant powerhouses reveals that “ORAC, Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, is the method that is used to measure the antioxidant capabilities of biological samples such as fresh fruits and vegetables. The ORAC value recorded for Aronia is about 58 percent higher in antioxidant levels than blueberries and over 90 percent more than cranberries … Proanthocyanidins have benefits that are directly related to protection against Cardiovascular disease. The concentration of PAs in the Aronia berry is among the highest reported value of any food.”
What is especially exciting about the health benefits of the dark purple Aronia berry is how easy it can be grown in North America. Also known as chokeberries, they are a native species found from Nova Scotia all the way to Florida.
The United States Department of Agriculture provides a general description of the Aronia berry plant: “A member of the Rose family, black chokeberry is a deciduous shrub which can grow to a height of 3 to 6 feet tall. The fine-toothed leaves are medium green and hairless, with raised glands along the top of the midrib. In spring, the white bisexual flowers form clusters that are 2 to 2½ inches across. The primary pollinators are small bees. As the seasons progress, the trees turn a deep glossy green. In mid to late summer the fruit begins to form. As the pea-sized fruit ripens, it darkens to a purplish-black color. The fruit are pomes which will begin to drop from the plants shortly after ripening. The fruits are quite juicy, but will begin to shrivel up after ripening. The juice and seeds are deep purple in color. There are 1 to 5 small seeds per pome.”
Aronia melanocarpa is a self-seeding perennial and relatively resistant to diseases, pests and even the usual top berry plant nemesis — birds. Several varieties are available for planting. Kansas State University Extension provides information on which varieties are most suitable for any purpose: “‘Autumn Magic’ and ‘Iraqis Beauty’ are commonly sold ornamental cultivars of Aronia melanocarpa. They were selected for their ornamental traits — white flowers, shiny green leaves, orange-red fall foliage, and dark purple berries. If not harvested, the berries will hang on the bushes until songbirds eat them in late winter. ‘McKenzie’ is a cultivar that was selected for use in windbreaks and conservation plantings, not for commercial berry production. It was released in 2008. ‘Viking’ and ‘Nero’ were selected in Russia for commercial fruit production. Within the last 15 years, these two cultivars were introduced back into the United States. Mature plants of ‘Viking’ are six to eight feet tall with 40 or more shoots per plant. They are the size of a common lilac bush and live just as long.”
The berries are ready to harvest in late August to September, and are frost hardy. One of the only commercial-scale Aronia berry farms, Sawmill Hollow Family Farm, celebrates the harvest and all things Aronia with an annual Aronia Berry Festival, held this year on Sept. 18 and 19 on the farm located in Missouri Valley, Iowa.
The Iowa State University Extension touts the economic potential for raising Aronia berries as well: “One acre of land can support 700 Aronia plants, with an average yield of 20 pounds per plant, producing a total of 14,000 pounds of fruit per year per acre. The current market value for Aronia berries is $1.00 to $1.45 per pound.”
If you’ve decided that growing Aronia berries is an endeavor you’re ready to undertake, or you’ve found a source for the berries, you should expect the taste of these antioxidant powerhouses to be surprising at first bite. “Astringency is the sensation that most people notice first,” describes Kansas State University Extension in Aronia Berries Easy to Grow Organically, Have High Levels of Antioxidants. “The berries will make your mouth pucker. This dry mouth feeling is caused by chemicals known as tannins. Tannins make dry wines dry. Many people like that dry, mouth puckering quality of dry wines and Aronia berries. Freezing reduces the astringency and makes it easier to extract the juice. When fully ripe, Aronia berries have a sugar content as high as grapes or sweet cherries. They have a high acid content (low pH) but are not sour when fully ripe.”
Fresh, and even better frozen, the berries are a great addition to smoothies, adding their antioxidants, color and unique flavor to any blend of fruits, vegetables, milk or yogurt. Using Aronia berries in place of other tart berries in baking muffins, breads or crumbles is another great option. The following recipes are a good starting point for cooking with Aronia berries.
Aronia Berry Bread Recipe
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 cup shortening
3/4 cup orange juice
1 cup sugar
1 cup Aronia berries or one cup of Aronia juice
1 cup chopped nuts (such as almonds or pecans)
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. In blender, combine egg, shortening, orange juice and sugar. Add Aronia berries (or juice) and nuts and chop briefly. Empty into flour mixture. Stir by hand until moistened. Bake in a greased 9-by-5 pan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 to 60 minutes.
Ena’s Aronia Pie Recipe
3 cups of fresh or frozen Aronia berries
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 recipe of pie dough (for a 2 crust pie)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 egg, beaten to mix with 2 teaspoons water
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a food processor, chop the Aronia berries slightly, about 3 seconds. Transfer them to a medium bowl and add the raisins, walnuts, orange juice, melted butter and orange zest. Stir until thoroughly combined. On a lightly floured surface, roll half of the pie dough into a 12-inch round. Drape the dough over a 9-inch pie pan. Press it into the pan and against the sides. Leave the edges overhanging. Roll the remaining pie dough into another 12-inch round. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and flour. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the mixture on the bottom of the pie shell. Mound the filling in the pie shell and sprinkle with the remaining sugar and flour mixture. Moisten the rim of the pie shell with water and cover with the dough round. Trim the edges of the dough 3/4 inch from the rim of the pan. Roll both layers of the dough under and crimp the edges to seal. Brush the pie with the beaten egg and cut several steam vents in the top. Put the pie on a baking sheet and bake in the middle of the oven until the pastry is golden and the filling bubbles up through the vents, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely.
The berries are also commonly juiced, which can either be consumed as is, sweetened or blended with other fruit juices, or used for jams, jellies and sauces. For a general rule, 1 pound of Aronia berries yields approximately 2 cups of juice.
Chokeberry Syrup Recipe
7 cups Aronia juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 package pectin
6 cups granulated sugar
Wash fruit and cover with water; simmer 15 minutes. Strain juice. Measure juice into a 6- to 8-quart kettle. Add pectin and stir. Bring to boil, add sugar, stir, and bring to a rolling boil. Boil exactly 2 minutes. Skim and pour into jars.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.