What Makes a Super Food?
Nearly every week we hear about the latest, greatest “super food.” From goji berries to chia seeds, wheat grass, blue-green algae, black rice, and even nano-foods, the items that make the super food list range far and wide.
I’ve touched on this topic in past newsletters and I stand by my opinion that there aren’t too many true super foods. Instead, I put my faith in a “super diet” as the way to super health. In general, what contributes to good health more than any one food is a diet based around unprocessed plants. This means eating mostly vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Even so, there are a few foods that stand out as having unique and powerful health benefits. Unfortunately, you probably haven’t heard of most of these winning super foods.
What separates the super foods you read about from those you don’t? Often, effective marketing is what makes the difference.
That’s not to say that all popular super foods don’t have health benefits. Many do. But a lot of good marketing drives much of what we read regarding the so-called super foods. And without the right cheerleaders, many healthy foods never capture the popular imagination.
Getting Acquainted with Aronia
One plant that has caught my interest in recent years due to its potential super food properties is chokeberry. Chokeberry, which goes by the botanical name Aronia melanocarpa, is a plant that bears dark purple to black-colored berries. These berries are loaded with a unique group of nutrients called anthocyanins (an-tho-sigh-ah-nins).
Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is part of the rose (Rosaceae) family of flowering shrubs, which includes nearly 3,000 unique species. The name chokeberry comes from the fact that the berries are very bitter and astringent (“mouth-puckering”) when eaten raw. In fact, they are pretty inedible straight from the bush. However, the chokeberries have a long history of use in jams, juices, wine, candies, and teas, and medicinally in Native American cultures.
Chokeberry may not have its own cheerleading team, but it does have something that many other super foods do not – research to back claims. A 2010 review of the cell, animal, and human chokeberry studies concluded that this plant offers an array of potential health benefits and activities in the body, including (1):
- protect against oxidation damage (antioxidant)
- protect against DNA mutations that can lead to cancer and other chronic diseases (antimutagenic)
- cardioprotective (protect the heart)
- hepatoprotective (protect the liver)
- gastroprotective (protect the stomach)
- radioprotective (protect against radiation damage)
- immune modulatory (affect immune system function)
Many of these potential actions in the human body come from chokeberries’ anthocyanins, phytonutrients that give the berry its vivid color. Anthocyanins are part of a larger group of phytonutrients called polyphenols (pahl-ee-fene-ols).
While chokeberry’s potential benefits cover a lot of ground, the place where Aronia melanocarpa really seems to shine is in addressing heart disease. This is no small thing, given that heart disease is the number one killer in the United States.
A double blind, placebo-controlled trial presented at the 2006 International Symposium on Atherosclerosis, which was later published in the journal Atherosclerosis in 2007, provided some of the best evidence of chokeberry’s heart healthy benefits (2,3). Double blind trials are the gold standard of research, giving the strongest level of evidence about the topic being studied.
For the study, 44 heart attack patients who were taking a cholesterol-lowering medication called simvastatin were randomly selected to also take either a chokeberry extract juice or a placebo. A placebo is a pill with no active ingredients. A placebo is what allows the trial to be “blinded.” Nobody knows whether they are taking the real chokeberry or the placebo pill. Many of these patients also were taking other medications, such as daily aspirin and ACE inhibitors (blood pressure medication) to lower the risk of a second heart attack.
After six weeks, researchers noted significant improvements of markers of heart attack risk in the group taking chokeberry, but not in the placebo group. Those taking the chokeberry juice experienced:
- A 38% reduction in blood levels of a marker called F2-isoprostane; higher levels of F2-isoprostate indicate more oxidation of fat particles in the blood and oxidized fat is a sign of damage in the body that can lead to heart disease
- A 29% reduction in blood levels of oxidized LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol; oxidized LDL-cholesterol levels are linked with higher heart disease risk, because when oxidized, cholesterol is more likely to form blockages in blood vessels
- A 30% reduction in blood levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6); higher IL-6 levels are linked with more inflammation in the body
- A 23% reduction in blood levels of c reactive protein (CRP); higher CRP levels also signal more inflammation
- Significantly increased adiponectin levels; adiponectin protects the cells lining blood vessels from damage
- A significant drop in systolic (the top, or higher number) and diastolic (the bottom, or lower number) blood pressure by an average of 11 and 7.2 points (millimeters of Hg)
In summary, having 85 milligrams of chokeberry extract juice three times per day significantly improved markers of health and heart attack risk in heart attack survivors. If ever a study supported the adage that “it’s never too late,” this one is it. Even after heart attack and being put on powerful heart disease medications, chokeberry still provided a lot of benefit to these folks.
More Kudos for Chokeberry
Since this study hit the news, additional research has bolstered the case for the unique benefits offered by chokeberry. From improved blood flow and lowered cholesterol levels to less inflammation and less oxidative damage in people with metabolic syndrome, chokeberry appears to be the real deal (4,5).
Metabolic syndrome, a condition defined by the presence of several risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, affects up to 25% of US adults. Any safe approach that can improve the health of people with metabolic syndrome is welcome news.
And beyond heart disease, studies using cells taken from women with breast cancer shows that chokeberry may decrease oxidation damage and inflammation in this group too (6,7). These studies need further confirmation with human trials, but the good news is that levels of chokeberry used in these cancer cell studies can be reached in the body by taking chokeberry orally (8).
Remember, in the end, good health comes back to more than just a single food or nutrient. The place to start is a healthy, plant-based diet, in which three-fourths of your plate is routinely covered by vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains. To this you need to add regular physical activity and things that lessen stress and bring you joy, from family and friends to hobbies and pastimes.
But if you’re interested in taking your health-preservation plan to a higher level, consider chokeberry, one of the true-blue, research-backed superfoods you’ve probably never heard of. Until now.
- Kokotkiewicz A, Jaremicz Z, Luczkiewicz M. Aronia plants: a review of traditional use, biological activities, and perspectives for modern medicine. J Med Food. 2010;13(2):255-69.
- O’Riordan M. Chokeberry-flavonoid extract reduces CRP, interleukin-6, and blood pressure. June 28, 2006. Available at: http://www.theheart.org/article/718959.do. Accessed October 26, 2010.
- Naruszewicz M, Laniewska I, Millo B, Dłuzniewski M. Combination therapy of statin with flavonoids rich extract from chokeberry fruits enhanced reduction in cardiovascular risk markers in patients after myocardial infraction (MI). Atherosclerosis. 2007;194(2):e179-84.
- Poreba R, Skoczynska A, Gac P, Poreba M, Jedrychowska I, Affelska-Jercha A, Turczyn B, Wojakowska A, Oszmianski J, Andrzejak R. Drinking of chokeberry juice from the ecological farm Dzieciolowo and distensibility of brachial artery in men with mild hypercholesterolemia. Ann Agric Environ Med. 2009;16(2):305-08.
- Broncel M, Kozirog M, Duchnowicz P, Koter-Michalak M, Sikora J, Chojnowska-Jezierska J. Aronia melanocarpa extract reduces blood pressure, serum endothelin, lipid, and oxidative stress marker levels in patients with metabolic syndrome. Med Sci Monit. 2010;16(1):CR28-34.
- Kedzierska M, Olas B, Wachowicz B, Stochmal A, Oleszek W, Jeziorski A, Piekarski J. The nitrative and oxidative stress in blood platelets isolated from breast cancer patients: the protectory action of aronia melanocarpa extract. Platelets. 2010;21(7):541-48.
- Kedzierska M, Olas B, Wachowicz B, Stochmal A, Oleszek W, Jeziorski A, Piekarski J, Glowacki R. An extract from berries of Aronia melanocarpa modulates the generation of superoxide anion radicals in blood platelets from breast cancer patients. Planta Med. 2009;75(13):1405-09.
- Wiczkowski W, Romaszko E, Piskula MK. Bioavailability of Cyanidin Glycosides from Natural Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) Juice with Dietary-Relevant Dose of Anthocyanins in Humans. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Nov 10. [Published online ahead of print].