The Magic Aronia Berry: Sustainable fruit for a healthier future

The berries of the Aronia melanocarpa plant are packed full with nutrients and antioxidants, such as vitamin C. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Brand)

I’m sure you’ve heard the term Antioxidants as a buzzword flying around health food stores and smoothie shops, but what are they and how do they keep us healthy?

According to a vitamin and mineral supplement distributor: “These powerful substances, which mostly come from the fresh fruits and vegetables we eat, prohibit (and in some cases even prevent), the oxidation of other molecules in the body. The benefits of antioxidants are very important to good health, because if free radicals are left unchallenged, they can cause a wide range of illnesses and chronic diseases.”

Oxidation occurs in the body typically when we begin to age or are damaged by things like sunlight. Antioxidants come in many different forms because they all help different parts of our bodies, some fight aging of the skin and the potential for skin cancer and others help our hearts, digestive tracts or eyesight.  As the science grows around the health benefits of these compounds, so does the agricultural community that produces these antioxidant rich fruits. Unfortunately, producers of fruits like pomegranates, acai, plums and blueberries don’t always follow organic or sustainable practice, so where should the people of North America be looking for antioxidants? Dr. Brand of the Plant Science Department and a specialist on these plants says Aronia is the answer.

The deciduous woody shrubs create a fruit bearing species collectively referred to as chokeberry.(Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Brand)

The Aronia is a genus of deciduous woody shrubs that harbors a fruit bearing species collectively referred to as chokeberry plants. These fruits, on average have about 3 times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries. This is theorized to be the highest density of antioxidants per fruit in the world. Aronia also have a much wider and native growing range. They can grow in USDA zone 8 and below (the climate zones from the Carolinas all the way up to Maine). These plants need little water, are relatively hearty and disease free, which makes them more sustainable and easy to grow.

For a gardener, they provide a home for native beneficial organisms like pollinators. They are also perennial plants so you get more than one harvest in a year. With climate change threatening agricultural biodiversity, these plants might just be the new, local, natural health food trend.

These fruits have already been recognized for their power and come in many different supplemental forms from health food stores. But there is a catch: they are not as sweet as blueberries. So if you manage to get your hands on some raw or frozen chokeberries here is a recipe for fruit leather, it’s a healthy snack that lasts a long time. This recipe can also be applied to other fruits for when you have more than you know what to do with during the coming season.

(Chokeberry) Fruit Leather Recipe

Ingredients

(Dan Wood/The Daily Campus)

  • 6 cups of fruit- fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 cup raw blue agave
  • The zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp. of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. of vanilla
  • ½ cup of POM pomegranate blueberry juice (only really necessary for chokeberry)

Instructions

Preheat your oven to 140 F, if your oven doesn’t go that low, you can always turn it on as close as you can and leave the door open to regulate the temperature.

Add all ingredients to a medium, thick-bottomed sauce pot and bring to a gentle simmer for about 5 minutes being sure that the bottom is not scorching, if your mixture looks dry, you can always add water to keep it from getting too hot. The goal here is to break down the fruit/skin and reduce the sugars.

Blend the fruit with a stand or stick blender (works best) until the mixture becomes a paste similar in consistency to Greek yogurt but will be much rougher in texture

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and spread out the paste to a 1/4 inch thick layer evenly across the parchment.

Let them bake for 6-8 hours depending on your oven. It is better to keep an eye on them after 5 hours. If the sides are getting darker and are crunchy but the middle is still a little soft, you can let them air dry over night to help them set.

After they have cooled, peel off the parchment paper and place your leather on a cutting board and cut to whatever shape you desire.

If you are working with chokeberries, it can be difficult to tell if they are burning during the process due to their dark color, just be sure to taste test as you go to make sure things have not carbonized.

These leathers make grate snacks, garnishes to a green salad or cereals in the morning.

If you would like to get real fancy, coating these little tart pieces of fruit in leather make an excellent treat to impress guests.


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.