The European cousins of the North American blueberry, bilberries are an outstanding health food with a wide array of possible uses. The bilberry shares the genus Vaccinium with blueberries; its species is referred to most often as Vaccinium myrtillus L.
Originating from the region of Scandinavia, these fruits have appeared in all manner of desserts, jams, juices, and liqueurs. Like blueberries, they are most notably richly comprised of anthocyanins like delphinidin and cyanidin glycosides, which cause staining on the hands and mouths of those consuming. Unlike blueberries, bilberries are softer and juicier and grow at the end opposite the stalk and in pairs or singularly, as opposed to the clusters of blueberries. It is also smaller, at 5 to 9 millimeters in diameter.
Bilberry fruit flesh is also darker, and the flavor is tarter in comparison to blueberries, because of its anthocyanosides and its antimicrobial tannins, the latter of which are also in purple grapes and dark teas (the bilberry itself is also used to make tea). For reference, its anthocyanin content is higher than other berries like strawberries, cranberries, elderberries, sour cherries, and raspberries, making it a superior dietary health supplement. Its benefits are best gleaned when it is consumed fresh, as a supplement extract, or as a tea.
These berries also contain substantial amounts of carbonic acids, alkaloids, and vitamins A, B1, B2, C, E, and K, as well as the minerals chromium, manganese, iron, and zinc.
Bilberries grow in acidic soil that is lacking in nutrition, which comprises much of the subarctic and temperate regions of the world, but they are not easy to cultivate. However, they thrive in areas throughout central and northern Europe like Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania. In fact, 17% to 21% of the land area in Sweden contains bilberry bushes.
Historically eaten fresh and also preserved as toppings, they are regular features in delicious desserts like sorbets, tarts, and crepes. For example, Swedes bake them into pies called “blåbārspaj” and a soup called “blåbārssoppa. In Poland, they get baked into sweet buns called “jagodzianka.” Also incredibly popular is the top-selling bilberry extract, a supplement known for its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Legend also has it that during World War II, British Royal Air Force pilots who consumed bilberry jam for tea experienced heightened abilities to see in the dark and therefore were more accurate when dropping bombs on the enemy. However, scientific studies do not necessarily back up these claims with large amounts of evidence, but it is growing. Nonetheless, academics like Dr. Evangeline Lausier of Duke University in North Carolina agree that its anthocyanosides do make it a healthy part of a balanced diet.
The health benefits of the bilberry are substantial. In the 18th century, German doctors would prescribe it to treat issues of diarrhea and other intestinal conditions. When later reassessed for safety and validity, a German panel of experts eventually officially approved bilberries for treating inflammation and diarrhea. Studies in American academia only further reinforce the benefits of bilberries. David Kiefer of the University of Wisconsin asserts that they also can help issues of abnormal blood vessels affected by oxidative damage in the retina and fight heart disease, inflammation and diarrhea. The most compelling conclusions from the study are in its effects on retinal inflammation, and further studies are revealing more conclusive evidence of its impact on glucose levels and intestinal and cardiovascular health.
Furthermore, the bilberry’s beneficial enzyme-stimulating activity has been proven to protect eyes from the endotoxin-induced uveitis by stimulating the production of rhodopsin pigment, which helps the eye to adapt to light changes. That may substantiate the story of British combat pilots benefitting from the effects of the bilberry.
As they are native to Europe and not North America, their rarity factors into their high demand among consumers from the United States. As one of the top-selling herbal supplements, they had sales of $28 million in the year 2010. Its anthocyanidin content exists in the range of 300 to 700mg per 100 grams of fruit, leaving its standardized percentage in bilberry extract at 25%.
When hunting for good bilberry extract supplements, it is essential to be wary of the quality of the manufacturer. Cheap extracts often contain dyes, and others are too light in color, which may indicate they provide less than the standard amount of anthocyanidins. But as long as they are coming from trusted sources, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database confirms that they are safe to eat and consume in extract form.
One potential side effect to be aware of is that anthocyanosides prevent the binding of blood platelets to one another. That means bilberry could interfere with anticoagulant medication like warfarin, mainly if consumed in a highly concentrated form like an extract. But if this is not a concern, the bioactives and their anti-inflammatory properties make for powerful antioxidant defense and preventative combatant against issues like diabetes, hyperglycemia, oxidative stress, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia. That is because its anthocyanins are by far the most significant contributors to its phytonutrient density.
Furthermore, its phenolic compounds operate as iron chelators, which help to remove heavy metals in the human body system and are contain lipid-lowering effects. Studies also indicate that future treatment may extend to cell-signaling pathways, cell adhesion, gene expression, DNA repair, and anti-tumor and antimicrobial effects.
And so in summation, the nutrient-rich bilberry is incredibly valuable in maintaining retinal health, unobstructed blood flow, as well as in its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich effects on the human body which helps to prevent issues like cancer, diabetes, diarrhea, as well as liver and kidney damage. Whether consumed fresh or in moderation as an extract supplement, the bilberry is a powerhouse of rich nutrients and ocular and cardiovascular benefits that are a worthy addition to any person’s healthy and balanced diet.