Can you eat raw elderberries?
Shannon Lauderdale 11/9/2019
This post should not be relied upon in isolation and is merely a personal experience of myself and another eating a small amount (1/4 cup) of Raw, dried Elderberries [Sambucus nigra canadensis] Ultimately YOU are responsible for your safety and those to whom you serve elderberries. We both ate 1/4 cup of dried which is equal to about 3/4 fresh, and my episode totally passed within 36 hours, however if you have eaten dried or raw elderberries and are feeling ill your experiences may be different. Use your best judgement on whether a doctor or urgent care visit is necessary.
Why elderberries are toxic.
Raw elderberries are known to be toxic, the seeds contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside, which can cause a buildup of cyanide in the body and make you quite ill. Cooking elderberries releases this toxin making them perfectly safe. My personal experience as an elderberry farmer had led me to avoid eating raw elderberries for years. Being a grower gave me the opportunity to talk to many, many people about elderberries and I was always searching for somebody that HAD eaten raw elderberries to learn. ... what exactly was their experience like? How many are too many? Was it something that needed a doctor? How long did it last? In all my years of elderberry conversations with others I did not find a single person who could answer any of these questions. I did find a [very] few people who claimed to have eaten some raw with no ill effects but they could never tell me exactly how many they ingested, thus avoidance of raw elderberries was always my safe solution.
The Day I Ate Uncooked Elderberries
During my first few years of growing elderberries I could not find trusted information one way or the other if dried elderberries were considered uncooked and thus toxic. I wanted to be safe so I had labels on all my dried elderberry packages that stated that RAW [DRIED] ELDERBERRIES ARE TOXIC, COOK BEFORE EATING. I also made sure to tell each person who purchased the elderberries that they should be cooked.
One morning one of my neighbors who had purchased some of my dried elderberries called me to ask if they could be making her sick. She was experiencing stomach pains, vomiting, and many bathroom visits a few hours after she had put some in her oatmeal. She had heated the oatmeal in the microwave but neither of us knew if that would be considered cooking. I did not have any real answers for her and because I had sold her these elderberries I felt responsible to KNOW for sure. I bravely decided it was time to test eating dried elderberries myself.
I asked her to estimate how many she had ingested and she thought maybe 1/4 of a cup. I measured out 1/3 cup of my dried elderberries and proceeded to eat them. My intention was to eat them all, straight out of the cup but after a few bites the taste was really not appealing and my stomach was telling me NO, NO, NO! I was getting a bit of that gag response. I cut the amount back to 1/4 cup and even then had to make some oatmeal to throw them into just to get them all down. When I called her back to see if she was feeling any better, she was still nauseous, throwing up and had diarrhea. She did not feel it was bad enough for a doctor's visit but stated she was miserable.
The first two hours my stomach felt a little odd but did not hurt and I was sure nothing was going to happen. In the third hour, however, my stomach started feeling really queasy and three hours and 10 minutes after finishing the 1/4 cup of dried elderberries I could no longer hold it back and ran to the bathroom to throw up. My stomach (actually probably the intestines) started these rather loud wicked gurgling noises which continued for almost 24 hours. At three and a half hours the diarrhea came, and continued and continued. It took about 36 hours to feel 100% okay again. It was not a knock down, stay in bed sickness, for me or my neighbor. It was thoroughly miserable however and it was nothing I would voluntarily choose to do EVER again.
After that it took me a while to do anything with dried elderberries, and even then I had to force myself. Much like any bad food experience where one avoids the offending food thereafter, that is where my mind/body wanted to go. I only got over it because I felt I absolutely had to if I wanted to continue farming elderberries. It has been years since this happened and the last time I spoke with my neighbor/friend about elderberries [about 4 months ago] elderberries were still on her Never Ever Again list of foods. It is sad that I lost her as a future elderberry customer but totally understandable. My goal is to prevent anybody else from suffering through what we both did by sharing our story. Once a person suffers through what we did, they are pretty much lost to the goodness that elderberries can do.
Do not fear the elderberry but do respect its rules.
Just because elderberry is not to be consumed raw is not a good reason to avoid it. Elderberry can do so much good when used correctly! Consider other powerful everyday things that have well known rules of what not to do with them without question, such as electricity or gasoline. Anything that has great power has rules that must be followed. The rule of the all-powerful elderberry is simply to cook before eating or discard the seeds. Most elderberry syrup recipes call for cooking and for double insurance discarding the pulp and seeds. Elderberry pie while the seeds are still in the pie they have been thoroughly cooked. Vinegars, tonics, tea, and wine recipes all call for discarding the seeds.
It has long been know that the European varieties contain the toxin so it is best to apply the cook before consuming rule to all of those. There have been recent studies that say that American elderberries contain much less of the cyanide-inducing glycoside, some varieties contain varying amounts and some were reported to have absolutely NONE. Unfortunately the varieties have differing amounts which means that unless you know the variety and often the particular bush that it came from you won't know how much you are getting.
So the answer to the question 'Can you eat raw elderberries?' is maybe, but safety says it is not a good idea. Thankfully the good health benefits of elderberry FAR outweigh the dangers, but information is critical for continued popularity.
Peace, Health, & Elderberries ~ Shannon