UMES studying aronia berries for hidden benefits
PRINCESS ANNE, Md. (Oct. 17, 2017) — When Ivan Michurin traveled to the United States in the late 1800s, he stumbled onto a berry plant native to Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic. Americans had largely ignored its small, blue fruit, but Native Americans, who made claims to the berry’s restorative qualities, quietly valued it.
Michurin gathered samples of the decorative bush and returned to his native Russia. He bred the berry, known as aronia, with European mountain ash, and his variety spread across Europe and Russia where it is grown to make wine, jelly, juice extract and other products.
Michurin would eventually become a world-renowned horticulturist praised by the Russian government for developing more than 300 types of fruit trees and berries. But his influential work with aronia didn’t entirely spread back to the United States, the plant’s native home, where it is mostly unknown among consumers.
A Russian professor and her students at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore are hoping to change that.
Victoria Volkis, an associate professor in the university’s natural science department, has been working with a team of students to research the fruit’s potential for an array of markets from food and nutritional supplements to less obvious applications such as the marine industry.
“You know why you eat tomato, right? Tomato has lycopene, which is also an antioxidant, and it’s considered to be a very valuable antioxidant,” Volkis said. “So, berries of aronia have 40 times more antioxidants than tomatoes. So, basically, it means when you eat a couple of berries of aronia, it’s equivalent of eating a pound of tomatoes.”
Volkis said she believes the berry is rich enough in antioxidants to topple the increasingly popular acai berry, which has spurred a massive international market thanks to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz, who champion the berry as a so-called super fruit. Aronia is even better, Volkis said. Acai berries are grown in the South American rainforest and must be imported. Aronia can grow from northern Georgia to Canada, she said, and they’re cultivated across the United States, including Maryland.
The university has been researching and promoting aronia — also known as a black chokeberry — for organic fruit production for more than 10 years. Andrew Ristvey, an Extension specialist for commercial horticulture, has been growing the plant at the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown, and Volkis’ team handles the lab work and analysis.
Aronia fruit is the size of a large blueberry and grows in clusters of 10 to 20. A mature plant between 7 and 8 years old can yield more than 15 pounds of fruit, and they start fruiting within two growing seasons after planting. More than two million aronia plants grow on nearly 2,500 acres across the country, mostly in the Midwest and eastern United States.
Though research on the fruit’s health benefits is limited, studies have shown that it could be beneficial to coronary and gastrointestinal health and may have cancer-fighting properties, among other potential health benefits. But processing the fruit is necessary to mask its astringent taste.
Students at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore are looking at the fruit from multiple perspectives. They found if the fruit is blended into a chemical solution applied to the hulls of ships, it prevents the buildup of biofilm, which collects barnacles and other organisms that create friction and cost money. Chemical fixes to this problem have proved too toxic for marine life and are banned. Aronia berries offer a potentially natural solution.
So far, the university has spent several hundred thousand dollars on aronia research over several years, but Volkis and Ristvey are up for a multi-million-dollar grant from the USDA, which has neglected the fruit’s value, Volkis said. She envisions a lucrative future for the alternative crop — particularly if a world-famous cardiothoracic surgeon adopts the cause.
“We only need Dr. Oz to be brought onto campus, and we need to educate this person and show him. He’s a scientist, so he can comprehend scientific results,” Volkis said, smiling. “I believe if one day we can get him on campus, aronia will replace acai. Bring him in. That’s all I can tell you.”