As Americans look for ways to improve and maintain their health, many are turning to so-called super fruits such as blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates and avocados and super foods like broccoli, sweet potatoes and dark greens.
Well, move over cranberries, there is a new super fruit in town, and if its purported health benefits are anywhere close to the conclusions reached by early research studies, you may never want another cranberry cocktail again.
The dynamo fruit in question is called the aronia berry, sometimes called black chokeberry because of its similarity to a distant cousin, the chokecherry.
While aronia berries are native to North America, it is only recently that they have come to be admired for their powerful antioxidant properties and cardiovascular benefits. Why are antioxidants important? As the cells in our bodies age, oxidation occurs, resulting in the creation of oxygen free radicals. These free radicals, which are believed to contribute to cancer, heart disease and the effects of aging, travel through cells, disrupting and causing damage to them. Antioxidants help protect cells from this damage, absorbing free radicals, converting them to harmless substances or attaching to them before they can attack normal tissues.
Aronia berries grow on shrubs with dark green foliage that turns red in the fall. White blossoms that appear in spring give way to a very dark purple, almost black berries similar in size to blueberries. A fully mature aronia plant can be as tall as eight feet and produce up to twenty pounds of fruit each year. The dark color of its fruit contains some of the highest concentrations of phenolic phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which are believed to help protect the human body from a myriad of diseases.
It was around four years ago that Mike and Krista Mangrich of rural La Porte City first learned about aronia berries. It wasn’t until a friend called a few years later that the Mangriches began to give planting the shrubs some serious thought. The plants are winter hearty and thrive in the climate of the northern United States. So last May, the Mangriches planted some 1,800 shrubs, more the size of twigs than bushes at the time, in a series of rows near their home. Fifteen months later, they will be ready to harvest their first aronia berry crop in mid-August, despite the fact their plants will not reach full maturity for another 3-5 years.
Though aronia berries are not known for their sweetness, the tart nature of the fruit has many applications, with juicing and smoothies being quite popular. Variations of wine using the juice from aronia berries are also becoming more popular, as vineyards explore ways of tapping into this super fruit. You can also find aronia berries in a variety of baked goods, from muffins to pies, in addition to cookies and crisps. Aronia berries have also been used in smoked meats such as bratwurst.
As growers explore the potential benefits of producing aronia berries, the industry is beginning to grow. The Mangriches purchased their plants from the closest supplier, Aronia Berry Services of Fairbank. Earlier this year, the North America Aronia Cooperative was launched in Omaha, Nebraska. Already members from ten Midwestern and great plains states have the capacity to produce up to several million pounds of fruit each year with an overall economic impact estimated at $8 million.
As the Mangriches prepare for their first aronia berry harvest later this month, they are excited to offer this super fruit to area residents looking for new, healthier alternatives, along with those wanting to spice up their juice and smoothie recipes. For more information about how you can purchase fresh aronia berries in the La Porte City area, call 319-231-5828.