The chokeberry (Aronia) extract is a powerful antioxidant and helps regulate weight gain and blood glucose, according to a new study on rats.
Native Americans have traditionally eaten dried chokeberries and prepared tea from parts of the plant.
However, the chokeberry is enjoying a new claim-to-fame as a potentially powerful antioxidant, and can now be found for sale in the dietary supplement and "health food" aisles of pharmacies and grocery stores.
Scientists say that the reason chokeberry is so healthful is because of its unusually high levels of substances called anthocyanins (from the Greek anthos + kyanos meaning dark blue).
There are many different anthocyanins in these colourful berries, but they all function as antioxidants - originally protecting the chokeberry seed from sunshine-induced oxidative stress.
When we eat them, they also appear to protect our bodies from a variety of damaging situations, including exposure to pollution and metabolically-derived free radicals.
Indeed, a growing body of scientific literature has shown promising effects of chokeberry consumption on diseases ranging from cancer to obesity.
In addition, certain anthocyanins - including those found in chokeberry - have also been shown to improve blood sugar and the function of insulin.
To better understand how chokeberries influence health, Bolin Qin and Richard Anderson from the US Department of Agriculture in Beltsville studied what happens when prediabetic rats are fed chokeberry extracts for an extended period of time.
This presentation is part of the scientific programme of the American Society for Nutrition, home of the world's leading nutrition researchers.
The researchers first made male rats "prediabetic" or insulin insensitive by feeding them a fructose-rich diet for 6 weeks.
Then they randomised the animals to continue drinking either pure water or water spiked with low or high levels of chokeberry extract.
After drinking this water for six weeks, the groups were compared in terms of body weight, body fat, blood glucose regulation, and molecular markers for inflammation.
Qin and Anderson found that at the end of the study the rats consuming the chokeberry-spiked water weighed less than the controls; both levels of chokeberry had the same effect in this regard.
Similar beneficial effects of chokeberry consumption were found for body fat (specifically, that of the lower abdominal region).
They also discovered that animals that had been drinking chokeberry extract had lower blood glucose and reduced levels of plasma triglycerides, cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol when compared to the control animals, says a US Department of Agriculture release.
These alterations would theoretically lead to lower risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease in humans.
The results were presented at the Experimental Biology 2010 meeting in Anaheim, CA.