While elderberry is a science-backed traditional remedy that is highly effective for the prevention and reduction of symptoms of coughs, colds and flu, are these commercial offerings any good? Is the store bought syrup as potent as homemade? Are these products even healthy to use?
Elderberry is Everywhere
The winter of 2017 with its severe flu season saw the great elderberry shortage, both of berries and over the counter elderberry products. The shortfall happened for good reason.
Elderberry is a millennia old food used as medicine. Hippocrates called it “that plant of God that heals everything it touches.”
For almost two thousand years, people have used elderberry for crafts, food, and medicine. From Native Americans to the Greco-Romans, from Russia to Canada, from ancient days to the Civil War, elderberry has held a place of importance and prominence for almost all people in places it grew.
Even pop culture can’t overlook elderberries, as it popped up during a flu outbreak in the hit TV show The Walking Dead.
Given its popularity, the number of elderberry products on the market has exploded over the past few years. Syrups, juices, gummies and a myriad of other products containing it are now available online and in stores.
Have you ever wondered if these over-the-counter elderberry syrups are any good? How do you know if you are getting the real deal?
Let’s examine these products in detail to see if they are worth the premium price people seem to willingly pay for them.
Tis So Sweet
The first thing you will want to ask about any elderberry product is how was it sweetened. Okay, you might ask, why does it need sweetening? Berries are already sweet, right?
Unlike other berries, elderberries are quite the bitter berry. By themselves the flavor is rather uninviting to the tastes buds.
Traditionally, elderberry was consumed cooked or fermented into beverages. Elderberry wines, meads and similar drinks involve the addition of sugar. This preparation wasn’t just to make them more palatable.
Raw elderberries are also somewhat dangerous. The entire elderberry plant contains a number of very toxic chemicals, including the berries.
Cooking and fermentation deactivate the toxins, but don’t do much to improve the taste. So people have always married elderberries to other ingredients such as herbs that enhance the berry’s benefits and flavor.
Unfortunately, many store bought elderberry syrups skimp on using high quality sweeteners, opting for low quality processed sugars or sugar substitutes.
Commercial Elderberry Sweeteners
One of the most favorably reviewed elderberry syrups on Amazon is made by Nature’s Way.
Fructose is the VERY FIRST ingredient! What’s more, Roundup riddled GMO corn is the likely source of this ingredient.
The third ingredient is vegetable glycerin. Again, this ingredient commonly comes from a number of problematic industrial crops. Why glycerin? It is naturally sweet, and consumers seem to accept it quite readily.
NOW elderberry liquid also contains glycerin as a substitute for any kind of sugar at all.
Fructose and glycerin are unnacceptable ways to sweeten bitter elderberry. They are cheap, add nothing but sugar and may potentially contain toxic residues. Due to its stickiness, glycerin may actually contribute to tooth decay especially in children who may take the syrup before bedtime to ease coughing.
Traditionally, elderberry was married to local raw honey or maple syrup for sweetening. Other herbs created synergistic benefits and further improved flavor.
Modern elderberry products, by replacing natural, unprocessed sweeteners for cheaper options, increase their profits dramatically while significantly reducing the overall potency of the final product.
Worse, cheap sweeteners actually make the product unhealthy to consume!
Some elderberry syrup brands seem to go out of their way to fool consumers about the sweeteners they use.
You will notice that Gaia organic elderberry syrup label says “with organic honey for kid friendly taste”. The actual ingredients, however, list cane sugar as the primary sweetener with pasteurized honey third down the list (after water!).
While authentic elderberry syrups are around one-third to one-half raw honey, maple syrup, or a similar beneficial sweetener like pure date syrup, plan on a much more watered down experience with even the best commercial sellers!
Modern Elderberry Syrup Processing
Even if a brand does use a reputable sweetener, such as honey, we now run into the second concern. How do manufacturers process each ingredient as well as the final product before bottling?
Unfortunately, it appears that most if not all commercial elderberry products are subject to pasteurization. This means that even if a brand uses a quality honey, most of the benefits are lost during the production process. Some sources claim that cooked or pasteurized honey goes from helpful to harmful.
Why is Store Bought Syrup Pasteurized?
The shelf life of homemade or artisanal elderberry syrup is only 4-8 weeks (longer if refrigerated or frozen). On the other hand, heat treated store bought bottles can sit on shelves for months and months waiting for someone to finally scoop them up.
A good local maker will allow the elderberry mixture to cool before adding in raw honey, ensuring that its many benefits are preserved in the final product.
Unfortunately, if you call a manufacturer to find out their processing methods, you might get a cagey answer. When I called the company Honey Gardens about their syrup made with “raw honey”, they would not give an answer as to whether the product was pasteurized after blending to enhance shelf stability.
Most elderberries used in commercial products are grown in western Europe, places like Austria and other such countries. Some of these are more strict than the United States when it comes to pesticides and other industrial agricultural chemicals.
Unfortunately, at this time there isn’t much data easily available on how farmers cultivate the bulk of these berries, what if any chemicals they commonly use to control pests, and how the berries test for any possible residues. For this reason, I would definitely stick with organic berries and organic syrups.
Beware of Fake Elderberry Syrup
Another problem with many commercially made products is that they don’t even use actual elderberries. Instead, they use elderberry extracts.
While many brands claim all sorts of interesting things about the potency of their product, it is really just a bunch of meaningless marketing fluff.
There is really no way to know how many ounces or cups of berries a manufacturer used to make the final amount of product.
One thing is almost certain. A commercially made elderberry syrup will not contain the same amount of elderberry as what you would make at home.
The chances that store bought, over the counter elderberry syrup is actually potent enough to help resolve illness is questionable at best.
Homemade vs Over the Counter Syrup
Let’s look at the potency of commercial vs homemade syrups by the numbers.
Most traditional recipes use a half cup of dried berries (or 1 cup of fresh) for each 16 ounces of final syrup.
Given that organic dried elderberries sell for about $30-50/lb, a single 16 ounce jar should realistically have $3-5 of berries in it!
You can be virtually certain that commercial elderberry syrup has nothing close to that potency per bottle!
What are “Wildcrafted” Elderberries?
What about products made with wildcrafted elderberies? Is this the same as organic? Well, that question is very difficult to answer.
Elderberries are a native, widely dispersed plant that often grows along fence lines, sinkholes, and where wood and pastures or crop lands meet. So, sometimes, you find large collections of bushes in relatively pristine places. Other times you find bushes right next to long stretches of industrialized GMO crops.
While companies claim their “wildcrafted berries” don’t come from near such operations, I would like to see how they ensure this to be true before I would give them my trust.
American vs European Elderberries
Does it matter if a product contains elderberries from North America or Europe?
Overall, I think the research at this point says no, it doesn’t.
Elderberry related plants are all close family, and researchers have found that the US varieties are as high and possibly higher in some of the beneficial compounds that studies show benefit our immune system and help with colds and flu. Future research will hopefully shed more light in this area.
Additives and Other Questionable Ingredients
Many store bought and online elderberry products have strange, unnecessary or otherwise questionable ingredients and additives.
Low quality ingredients such as citric acid, malic acid, and mono and diglycerides are common. Many contain the dubious “natural flavors” that is a catch-all for all sorts of industrial stuff with toxic residues.
One even has as a main ingredient just the words “proprietary blend.”
Elderberry Gummies. Worst of the Bunch
Be on guard that commercial elderberry gummies are even worse than the syrups!
The ones I’ve checked have one or even two sugars as the first two ingredients. These sweeteners are usually non-organic and relatively low quality to boot. There is little actual elderberry in these products, hence any therapeutic value is likely slim to none.
Your child may love them, but are they doing him/her any good? Very likely the answer is no.
Instead of commercial elderberry gummies with little to no value for your child’s wellness, try making homemade elderberry jello instead. It’s fast and easy and contains enough elderberry juice per bite to be therapeutic.
Good Elderberry Ingredients to Look For
Besides elderberries and a natural, unprocessed sweetener, good quality elderberry syrups will often contain ceylon cinnamon, cloves, ginger, rose hips, and other beneficial herbs and flowers.
These ingredients work to increase the potency of the final product.
Look for certified organic for these whenever possible!
Price Comparison: Homemade vs Store Bought
The old adage “you get what you pay for” doesn’t seem to apply to store bought elderberry syrup. Not only are you paying an arm and a leg per dose, but the quality and potency are highly suspect despite the steep price.
For example, certified organic Gaia syrup, you will pay more than $4… per ounce! And, the product is still pasteurized to allow that coveted shelf stability. Moreover, a cheap sweetener is used along with questionable additives.
By comparison, artisanally made syrups such as “Abby’s elderberry syrup” (full disclosure: she’s my daughter) only uses organic, high quality ingredients just like you would make yourself at home. It costs three-quarters less at about $1.00/ounce. Fresh berries grown on our beyond-organic farm are the primary source, and in the off season, we use organic dried berries.
Below is a picture of Abby making her homemade syrup which she can ship to you if you prefer not to make it yourself.
Should You Buy Commercial Elderberry Products?
In sum, commercial elderberry products such as syrups and gummies are not worth the money.
Even if organic, they are watered down with cheap sweeteners and questionable additives. Those that contain raw honey and organic herbs are almost certainly pasteurized to enhance shelf life. Heat treatment negates the original benefits of these ingredients.
To get authentic syrup that actually helps prevent or quickly resolve colds/flu in your home, make it yourself (this elderberry syrup recipe is what Sarah has used for years), or buy from a small farm/artisan such as Abby’s Elderberry Syrup who will ship it to you freshly made.
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.