Buffaloberries – 2014's new 'superfood'

Behind the Headlines

Friday January 3 2014

The fruit is native to northern and western North America

The buffaloberry has a bittersweet taste

"The buffaloberry is the new superfood of 2014," the Mail Online declares. But at this stage there is very limited evidence to back up the hype.

The website reports on laboratory research analysing the chemical constituents of the buffaloberry fruit. This is a fruit native to northern and western North America. Buffaloberry has historically been used as a food source by North American indigenous peoples but has had limited commercial production.

The researchers found that the fruit contained lycopene. Lycopene belongs to the "carotenoids family" – organic pigments found in plants. It is also an antioxidant, a substance that protects against cell damage at the molecular level. The main antioxidant present was actually an acidic derivative of lycopene, called methyl apo-6’-lycopenoate (MA6L). They also found high concentrations of phenols, which give the fruit a "tart" taste, and are believed to have possible anti-inflammatory effects.

It is possible that buffaloberry could have beneficial antioxidant effects, but the current study does not provide evidence that it could reduce risk of disease and promote wellbeing. Importantly, as the researchers say, while the possible effects of lycopene on human health have been studied, those of buffaloberry’s main antioxidant, MA6L, haven’t.

There is no single dietary quick fix to good health. The best way to promote good health is to eat a healthy balanced diet, including a wide variety of different vegetables and fruit, taking regular exercise, avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol intake.

  

Could buffaloberries be an ideal crop for the developing world?

One intriguing suggestion mentioned in the study is that buffaloberries could be used to stimulate agricultural production in parts of the developing world. The crop is relatively hardy and can grow in poor soil conditions and in dry climates.

 

As well as producing fruit the buffaloberries can be used to make wine.

 

It could be the case that in 10 years’ time you could be seeing in the New Year with a bottle of African buffaloberry wine.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Ohio State University and South Dakota State University and was funded by a Griffith Undergraduate Research Fellowship and research funds from Special Grants for Dietary Intervention.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Food Science.

Overall the Mail Online is a little premature in hailing the buffaloberry the new superfood based on research that only looked at the chemical constituents of the berry. Researchers did not assess what effect the berries had on health outcomes in a human population.

Still, we would not be surprised if this article led to a flurry of similar articles extoling the benefits of this new superfood, as has occurred in previous years.

Read more about the evidence behind so-called superfoods.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a laboratory study designed to examine the chemical constituents of buffaloberries.

The buffaloberry plant (Shepherdia argentea) is native to a wide variety of habitats, from stream bansk to dry upland grasslands of North America. It has historically been used as an important food source by North American indigenous peoples.

However, its commercial production has been limited. The buffaloberry plants are said to produce red-coloured fruits rich in carotenoid and phenolic antioxidants. This study looked at the chemical constituents of seven different selections of buffaloberries grown in Dakota.

 

What did the research involve?

Buffaloberries were collected from wild plants in five locations in North Dakota and two locations in South Dakota in September and freeze-dried in preparation for analysis.

Laboratory methods were used in order to extract and quantify all the carotenoid pigments, including lycopene and its derivatives. Additional methods were used to look at total phenol content and total water-soluble antioxidant capacity.

The researchers also examined fruit quality, including looking at its sugar content and acidity levels to see if it could have commercial potential.

 

What were the basic results?

The main carotenoid pigments found in the buffaloberries were lycopene (red-orange pigment found in fruits such as tomatoes and peppers), and an acidic lycopene derivative called methyl apo-6’-lycopenoate (MA6L). MA6L had the highest concentration and comprised just over half of the total carotenoid antioxidants. There were only trace amounts of other, unidentified, carotenoids.

The buffaloberries also contained high total phenol concentrations. Phenols cause the fruit to have a ‘tart’ taste. And its antioxidant levels compared favourably to fruits such as raspberries, strawberries and elderberries.

When looking at fruit quality, the researchers report that the buffaloberry is very high in sugar, but this is balanced by an acidity and phenol content that could make them desirable as fresh fruit, and for wine production.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say that buffaloberry fruits contain principally lycopene and the acidic derivative methyl apo-6’-lycopenoate, which they say "may provide health benefits and marketable produce for consumption and sale".

They report how the buffaloberry flourishes on the American Indian Tribal Reservations of the Dakotas, "yielding copious amounts of health-beneficial fruit for fresh and processing markets". They say the fruit, which is a traditional food of the indigenous peoples of the region, has already found favour with several commercial wine producers.

 

Conclusion

This research was analysing the chemical constituents of the buffaloberry fruit, which is native to various habitats of North America. Buffaloberry has historically been used as a food source by North American indigenous peoples but has had limited commercial production.

The researchers found that the main antioxidant present in the fruit was the acidic lycopene derivative methyl apo-6’-lycopenoate (MA6L). MA6L has reportedly been found also to be a major chemical constituent of other closely related North American berries, such as soapberry fruit.

However, by contrast soapberry is said to be practically inedible due to its intensely bitter taste.

Therefore the researchers consider that the abundance of this caretenoid in buffaloberry could have practical marketing potential and possible health effects. The crucial point though, as the researchers say, is that the effects of MA6L upon human health is still unknown and still has to be evaluated.

The concentration of phenols was also high and said to compare favourably to other berries such as strawberries and raspberries. The researchers say that phenolic compounds are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, though it is believed that any such effect is likely to be the combined effect of several antioxidants rather than just a single phenol.

Overall it is possible that the lycopene, M6AL and phenols found in buffaloberries could have beneficial antioxidant effects, but without further evaluation it should not be concluded that buffaloberry is a superfood surpassing all other fruits and vegetables. The current study does not provide evidence that this is a single miracle food that could reduce risk of disease and promote wellbeing.

If marketed, buffaloberries could one day be a useful addition to a balanced diet, but relying on a single food source to keep you healthy is not a good idea.

A healthy balanced diet should contain food from the four main food groups – fruit and vegetables; starchy foods such as rice; protein-rich food such as meat and beans; and calcium-rich food such as dairy products. Read more about what constitutes a balanced diet

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Links to the headlines

Goodbye, goji berry! The buffaloberry is the new superfood of 2014... but what the heck is it? Mail Online, January 2 2014

Links to the science

Riedl KM, Choksi K, Wyzgoski FJ. Variation in Lycopene and Lycopenoates, Antioxidant Capacity, and Fruit Quality of Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea [Pursh]Nutt.) Journal of Food Science. Published online October 8 2013

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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