Bilberry Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Bilberries

Photo: Alexandra Shytsman 

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a dark blue berry also known as the European blueberry. The fruit is very similar to the American blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) but can be smaller and darker. Inside, the flesh is dark, soft, and juicy. The flavor is similar to a blueberry but is sometimes described as more intense. In many areas of the U.S. the terms huckleberry, bilberry, whortleberry, and blueberry are used interchangeably.

Bilberries are used in jams, pies, muffins, and other baked goods. The fruit is also commonly used as a base for liqueurs. Bilberries and bilberry leaves have also been consumed throughout history for their medicinal benefits. The fruit is believed to help treat diarrhea, scurvy, infections, burns, and diabetes. During World War II, it is believed that British pilots ate bilberry jam to improve their night vision.

The health benefits of bilberries are still widely promoted. Bilberry supplements are sold in many natural food stores. Not all of the health benefits of bilberries are supported by scientific evidence. though.

Bilberry Nutrition Facts

Many media sources that provide nutritional information for bilberries simply provide the numbers for blueberries because the fruits are so closely related. The USDA does not provide nutrition information specifically for bilberries, but they do provide limited nutrition information for Alaskan-sourced huckleberries. The following information is for a 100g serving (about a half cup) of fresh, raw huckleberries.

  • Calories: 37
  • Fat: 0.1g
  • Sodium: 10mg
  • Carbohydrates: 8.7g
  • Protein: 0.4g

Carbs

A 100-gram serving of huckleberries contains about 37 calories. Most of the calories are carbohydrates. By comparison, a similar serving of blueberries contains the same number of calories and carbs.

While the USDA data does not break down the carbohydrates in huckleberries, some vendors who sell the fruit provide the numbers on their package labels. According to one source, most of the carbohydrates in this fruit come from naturally-occurring sugar. Sugar that occurs naturally in foods is generally less of a concern than sugars that are added to food as part of the processing (called "added sugars").

The glycemic index of bilberry has not been established. However, the glycemic index of blueberries is 53. The glycemic load is estimated to be 4, making them a low glycemic food.

Fats

There is no fat in bilberries if you eat the fresh berries.

Protein

Bilberries provide a very small amount of protein, around less than one gram.

Vitamins and Minerals

Like most berries, bilberries provide vitamin C—about 2.8 mg per serving. Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant and helps to protect cells in your body from damage caused by free radicals.

Bilberries also contain phenolic compounds, including flavonols (3 mg of quercetin and 20 mg of catechins), tannins, ellagitannins, phenolic acids, and most notably anthocyanins. In fact, bilberry has a higher anthocyanin content when compared to other types of berries, such as strawberry, cranberry, elderberry, sour cherry, and raspberry.

According to published reports, the usual daily dietary intake of anthocyanins is approximately 200 mg. A single 100-gram serving of bilberry provides 300-700 mg depending on the berry variety, growing conditions, and degree of ripeness.

Health Benefits

Many of the health benefits provided by bilberries are attributed to their high anthocyanin content. Anthocyanins are responsible for the bright, rich color of the berries. They are water-soluble compounds that are known to provide certain health benefits.

Specifically, researchers have indicated that anthocyanins may provide anti-obesity benefits, have antidiabetic effects, improve visual and neurological health, and protect against various non-communicable diseases. In addition to the antioxidant properties of anthocyanins, studies have indicated that the benefits may also involve cell-signaling pathways, gene expression, DNA repair, and antimicrobial effects.

Studies about the health benefits of consuming bilberry fruit, specifically, are very limited. In fact, the National Institutes of Health states that there is not enough scientific evidence to support the use of bilberry for any human health condition.

There is some research investigating the potential benefits of bilberry supplements, but strong evidence supporting the wide range of claims promoted by supplement makers is limited. In addition, medical sources note that recommendations about bilberry and bilberry supplements often come from research on similar antioxidants, or from test tube, and animal studies, not from the fruit's direct impact on humans. There have, however, been a few notable findings.

Reduced Inflammation

One study published in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research investigated how bilberries might benefit those with metabolic syndrome. After an 8-week investigation, study authors concluded that a diet high in bilberries may reduce low‐grade inflammation indicating decreased cardiometabolic risk in the long term.

It is important to note, however, that participants in the experimental group consumed 400 grams of fresh bilberries daily. The intake was comprised of 200 grams of bilberry puree and 40 grams of dried bilberries (equivalent to 200 grams of fresh bilberries). That level of consumption is much higher than the amount typically consumed by an average eater.

Dental Health

Another interesting study investigated the relationship between bilberry consumption and dental health. It appears that bilberry intake may have an impact on gingival inflammation-reducing gingivitis to a similar extent as standard dental care. The study participants who showed improvement consumed 250 or 500 grams of bilberries daily over seven days. Again, this level of consumption is not typical.

Improved Vision

Bilberry extract is sold in tablets, capsules, and drops. There have been studies investigating the product's potential to boost eye health.

For example, a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that a bilberry supplement may prevent eye fatigue. Investigators studied 281 office workers in Japan for eight weeks. They found that those who consumed a supplement (480 mg per day of bilberry extract) showed both objective and subjective improvements in parameters of eye fatigue brought on by acute video display terminal load.

Allergies

Reports of bilberry allergy are lacking and even reports of an allergic reaction to blueberry are limited according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The organization also reports that cross-reactivity with different types of berries is rare.

Adverse Effects

Dietary reference intakes do not currently exist for anthocyanins in the United States, Canada, or the European Union. Researchers note that the risk of toxicity from consuming the fruit is very small. Anthocyanin toxicity has not been shown in currently published human intervention studies.

Bilberries are generally safe when consumed as food. However, reports indicate that bilberry contains chromium. Consuming foods with chromium increases the risk of chromium poisoning when taken with other chromium-containing herbs and supplements, including brewer's yeast, cascara, and horsetail.

There is also some evidence that bilberry may interfere with certain medications including Erlotinib (Tarceva) and medications for diabetes.

Lastly, bilberry might slow blood clotting. Consuming the berry (especially in high amounts) or taking bilberry supplements with other herbs and supplements that slow blood clotting may increase the risk of bruising and bleeding.

Other herbs that slow blood clotting include angelica, clove, danshen, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, glucosamine, and Panax ginseng. You should also speak to your healthcare provider before taking bilberry if you take medications that slow blood clotting (anticoagulant or antiplatelet drugs).

Varieties

In parts of Europe, there are different names for the berry, including:

  • Bilberry or whortleberry (England)
  • Blaeberry (Scotland)
  • Fraughans (Ireland)
  • Mustikat (Finland)

Blueberries are easier to find in the United States than bilberries. In the U.S. huckleberries, bilberries, blueberries, and whortleberries are generally considered the same fruit by consumers, but horticulture experts do note some differences.

Huckleberries are a small, dark berry that is very similar in appearance to the blueberry and bilberry. They also have a taste that is similar to blueberries. Blueberries are in the same family as bilberries (Vaccinium) and have a nearly identical appearance as the bilberry. However, blueberries are often a little bit more firm and they have a more delicate taste.

When It's Best

Bilberry season is traditionally between August and September.

Storage and Food Safety

Fresh berries, like bilberries, will stay fresh for one to two weeks if stored in the refrigerator. The berries can also be frozen. When placed in an airtight container and stored in the freezer, they should keep for about 8–12 months.

How to Prepare

You can enjoy bilberries just like you would enjoy blueberries or any other berry. Many people like to eat the fruit raw or add the whole berries to cream or milk. You can add bilberries to yogurt, add them to your favorite whole-grain cereal, top ice cream with bilberries, or add them to a fruit salad.

You can also bake with this fruit. Bilberry pie is a traditional favorite in the north of England. Simply use a blueberry pie recipe and use bilberries as the fruit. Bilberry muffins, upside-down cake, cheesecake, and other treats are also delicious.

Recipes

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Article Sources
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