I’ve been using elderberry syrup to boost my family’s immunity for many years. This traditional remedy is a highly effective preventative as it is loaded with antioxidants, Vitamin C and immune-supporting minerals.
Elderberry is an essential must-have in the holistic medicine cabinet throughout the school year and during cold/flu season!
In addition to its benefits as a preventative, elderberry syrup helps get you well faster if you are already sick. This is particularly true with anything that is cough or sinus related.
This rich, dark, tasty syrup (kids love it!) was a key part of my strategy for my children during a bout with pertussis (whooping cough) 10 years ago. In fact, it is one of the very few remedies that are helpful for this ailment.
With anything that is beneficial, however, there seems to be a downside to watch out for. Have you noticed this too?
With elderberries specifically, this caution is with regard to how the syrup is made.
Raw Elderberry Dangers
Recently, I’ve received some emails regarding my 3-ingredient, ultra-simple recipe for homemade elderberry syrup which uses cooked elderberries. These emails from readers promoted a different recipe that does not cook the berries first.
These emails suggesting an uncooked syrup stated that keeping the elderberries raw preserved enzymes and the natural acidophilus probiotic on the berries and leaves themselves and that this was beneficial to improving the syrup to a more potent level.
While elderberry enzymes and probiotics are definitely retained if you make raw elderberry syrup, there are significant risks to this approach.
Raw is not always better! The humble elderberry is a very good example of this.
Elderberry is Highly Astringent
The elderberry is a highly astringent plant. What this means is that it contains compounds that can cause severe contraction of body tissues either internally or externally. The fresh leaves, flowers, bark, unripe berries, unripe buds, and roots of the elderberry contain a bitter alkaloid and also a glucoside that, under certain conditions, can produce hydrocyanic acid (prussic acid) which is poisonous.
The astringent qualities of elderberries lessen as the fruit ripens. Most importantly, these anti-nutrients are deactivated when elderberries are cooked. Cooking the berries first before making the syrup also has the benefit of enhancing the unique flavor of the elderberry.
While elderberries are safe to consume if cooked, consuming uncooked berries or their juice may produce nausea or more severe symptoms. When the leaves or stems are crushed with the berries, the risk for an adverse reaction is even greater.
Hence, when you are making elderberry syrup yourself, it is important to always avoid picking unripe elderberries or including the leaves or parts of the stem.
How to Tell if an Elderberry is Safe or Dangerous
When elderberries are unripe, they are greenish. Berries of similar species are red. When elderberries are ripe and ready to be picked usually during July and August in North America (except the Pacific Northwest), they are dark and purple to blue-black in color. According to the USDA:
Only the blue or purple berries of elderberry are edible. Edible berries and flower are used for medicine, dyes for basketry, arrow shafts, flute, whistles, clapper sticks, and folk medicine. The active alkaloids in elderberry plants are hydrocyanic acid and sambucine. Both alkaloids will cause nausea so care should be observed with this plant. Elderberries are high in Vitamin C. The red berries of other [related] species are toxic and should not be gathered (1).
To make sure you are getting ripe elderberries if you prefer not to forage for them yourself, you can source quality berries from a reliable herbal manufacturer. Incidentally, if knowing how to safely forage for food plants is of interest to you (like it is to me), Foraging and Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook is a wonderful primer.
Health Risks from Elderberry if Raw
It alarms me greatly when I receive emails from people that they are making raw elderberry syrup. If completely ripe berries were not used or if some leaves or bits of stem were included in making the syrup either accidentally or intentionally, this mistake could send your child to the emergency room.
One example of how raw elderberry juice is dangerous occurred on a California retreat. Eight people ended up hospitalized for various symptoms (2). Retreat staff had gathered local, wild elderberries and pressed them into juice for the group, mixing it with apple juice and sugar which disguised the bitter, astringent qualities of the elderberry.
Within 15 minutes of consuming the juice mixture, retreat attendees began to suffer from acute gastrointestinal and neurologic symptoms which included nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and weakness. Some also complained of dizziness and numbness. One individual experienced a state of severe stupor.
Cooking Elderberries First is the Safest Way to Make Syrup
In sum, due to the risks of consuming raw elderberries, it is the safest approach, in my opinion, to cook them first. This is especially recommended if the syrup will be used with young children or those with digestive issues.
Note that if you choose to use commercial elderberry juice concentrate (this brand is excellent) to make syrup, it has already been heated from processing and is thus safe to consume without cooking.
Try making this recipe for elderberry jello as a fun and safe way to enjoy this immune-boosting food.
Hi. I’m not sure if this thread is still actively monitored. My 2 year old ate about 10 unripe elderberries about 6 hours ago. Do I need to panic? X
I eaten allot of them raw as a kid we pick and eat them there not great tasting. I cant say I ever got sick.
Sarah Pope MGA
You must have been very careful about never eating a green one or a leave/twig from the stem.
(Without injecting them into my bloodstream.)
Since cooked elderberries are not toxic, and if you’re using them purely for medicinal purposes, why would you want to strain out the juice, as the recipe says to do?
You could just eat the puree and not have to discard anything.
Sarah Pope MGA
Yes, you can do that but elderberries are not very tasty. Straining out the juice and mixing with a medicinal raw honey makes it palatable.
I meant I was thinking of otherwise following your recipe, but without throwing any of the elderberries away.
Are the skins more bitter than the juice, or why else would anyone discard them?
I have a few lbs. of European dried elderberries and have actually been eating tiny quantities of them as is. They don’t taste bad to me at all.
I wonder if I can tolerate 0.375 dry oz. of them (no stems or leaves), which I think is what is contained in every 1 fluid oz. of the full-strength syrup.
Does cooking them make them more digestible, even as it perhaps otherwise destroys some of their properties?
I imagine it would also help if they were powdered in a coffee grinder, if I was going to eat them raw.
I don’t really care about the taste, I’m just looking for maximum bioavailability per quantity.
If I use the elderberry concentrate you link here what would the recipe for the syrup be? do i still have to heat it or what?
thank you and love your page!
Sarah Pope MGA
No, you don’t have to heat it when you use commercial 100% elderberry syrup! Simply add the raw honey, blend and you are done!
Good article. Growing elderberry this summer
If I am making elderberry wine should I boil them first to extract the pure juice and the precede as normal
Sarah Pope MGA
I’ve not made elderberry wine … so not sure if the fermentation process eliminates the toxins like boiling the berries does. Wine is supposed to be raw … when making grape based wine the grapes are never cooked first else the fermentation process is inhibited.
I bought some elderberry cuttings. My daughters are afraid for me to plant them now because we have small children. I am thinking that I should fence them with chicken wire and teach them to leave them alone. If they are deadly, however, it wouldn’t be worth taking a chance. Would the raw berries be deadly to a child? How many would it take to be harmful?
I agree. You need to amend this post. The people who got sick in California was because they ground berries, leaves and stems. The RIPE berries would have to be eaten in a large quantity to have enough cyanide to give you a stomachache much less poison you. You can eat the blooms of elderberry. They are not poisonous either. You stated it’s okay if some stems are mixed in. I disagree with that also. You should not eat the stems or leaves. That would cause illness way before ripe berries.
I found this question and answer on another site. Don’t know if it’s correct, but it seems many people do make tinctures and survive.
C…”I thought elderberries had to be boiled to not be considered poisonous?”
January 18, 2018 at 10:16 am
Hi C…! The elderberries just can’t be consumed – they can be tinctured to extract the properties and then you discard the berries.