Its aronia berry picking time in Iowa! And if you are lucky enough to live near a pick-your-own aronia berry orchard, you are in for a day of fun and stained hands! Fresh berries, juice and other aronia products may also be available now in some local grocery stores.
Aronia berries are not new to Iowa; they are actually indigenous to the state and were used by the Potawatomi Native Americans to cure colds. Formerly known as black chokeberries, rebranding of the less appetizing name of “chokeberry” has helped the native berry catch on and develop into what is now a big industry. The berry’s new name comes from its genus, Aronia melancorpa. While grown throughout North America, the first US commercial cultivation of the berry bushes can be traced to the Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, where Andrew Pittz and his family planted about 200 bushes in 1997. Since then, aronia production has grown and bushes have been planted in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. Presently there are 300-400 growers in Iowa with small to large operations. 80 of these operations have been organic certified by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
These purple, pea-sized berries boast one of the highest antioxidant values ever recorded for fruits, superseding blueberries, elderberries, acai berries and goji berries, according to research published last year in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Also rich in vitamins and minerals, they have high levels of polyphenols, anthocyanins, and flavanols–antioxidants needed to fight free radicals–making them good at fighting inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and urinary tract infections.
While aronia berries are more astringent than blueberries, they can be eaten fresh or frozen. Not many people eat them fresh. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth when eaten. They are a little less astringent after freezing but usually best processed into jam, juice or baked products where the aronia takes on a whole new taste of its own. To eat them raw, they are best used in smoothies, yogurt, ice cream or oatmeal. Berries, either fresh or frozen, can be used in any recipe as a substitute for cranberries, blueberries, or chokecherries. They are also good added to pancakes or mixed with other fruits in a crisp or pie. Other ideas include salsa, salads, beverages, cereal, pizza, chili, and soups. The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides information on making jam from all berries.
So if you haven’t had an opportunity to try aronia berries fresh, frozen, or in another product, perhaps it is time to venture out and give these tart little berries a try! They might make you pucker, but this superfruit will definitely add some health benefits to your diet. And, chances are, this Iowa crop will grow on you!