British Columbia

Move over blueberries — wild B.C. shrub produces contender for world's healthiest berry

Scientist who studied health components of salal berry initially didn't realize they were a traditional First Nations' food.

Salal berries rate high in tannins, antioxidants, says University of Victoria scientist

University of Victoria biologist Peter Constabel didn't realize salal berries were edible until he received a bottle of dessert wine with salal extract as a gift. (University of Victoria)

Move over, blueberries.

A new University of Victoria study suggests the tiny fruit of a wild shrub that grows abundantly in B.C. is a contender for the healthiest berry on the planet.

UVic biologist Peter Constabel's research found that berries of the salal plant beat blueberries hands-down for two key compounds associated with health benefits.

The study is published this month in the international journal of plant chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology, Phytochemistry.

"It was a bit of a coincidence," Constabel said. 

He had already completed a study of blueberry compounds, and he was familiar with the salal plant (Latin name Gaultheria shallon).

Salal berries are a traditional food of West Coast First Nations. (Ashley Fraser/CBC)

But until someone gave him a bottle of dessert wine containing salal extract, he said, "I wasn't even aware that you could eat the berries." 

Constabel later learned salal berries are a traditional food of Indigenous peoples on the West Coast.

"I thought, well, salal is known to have a lot of tannins in the leaves and so I thought the fruit would have high levels of antioxidants and tannins based on what I had read," Constabel said.

"We did some experiments and sure enough they had really, really high levels." 

Higher antioxidant, tannin levels

The salal berries contain high levels of tannins, a compound in many fruits and whole foods linked to better health.

"They're about five times higher than blueberry, which is considered one of the prime healthful berries," he said.

"A diet high in tannins is linked to reduced risk in cardiovascular disease, heart disease, strokes; to reduced risk of neurodegenerative disease, and also to a reduced risk of what's called metabolic syndrome (such as) type 2 diabetes, those kinds of issues," 

Extracts made from salal berries also showed levels of antioxidants three to four times higher than blueberries.

"Both of those things together made me realize that hey, these are very interesting berries," he said.

Flavour between blueberry and red currant

"I would have to say they're not quite as tasty as blueberries but they're close," he said.

"You get a good patch. they're juicy, they're sweet, they taste a little bit like a cross between a blueberry and a red currant. but a bit mealier, a bit more texture."

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Island with Gregor Craigie.