blackcurrants for your brain

Barker’s of Geraldine has just released a new range of blackcurrant juice, and recent research shows the new Blackadder variety could have huge benefits for brain health. Nutritionist Sheena Hendon shares the research.

With an ageing population comes a rising number of brain health conditions. And with more than 50,000 Kiwis recorded as living with dementia – two thirds of those with Alzheimer’s, and approximately 1 in 500 New Zealanders with Parkinson’s – more research is of paramount importance.

Newly published New Zealand research is creating waves internationally by illustrating that the New Zealand-bred Blackadder blackcurrant variety not only increased people’s reaction time while maintaining accuracy, but that it has the potential to help maintain brain health during ageing.

This article explores the many health benefits attributed to blackcurrants, their potential role in improving brain function conditions and how a South Island-based company, Barker’s of Geraldine, has managed to bring the Blackadder to supermarkets nationwide.

Health benefits of blackcurrants
Blackcurrants have been known as a superfood for centuries. For generations, mothers have regarded blackcurrants as a trusted natural source of nourishment for their families and traditional healers have used them for a broad range of ailments and winter maladies. But it’s only in recent decades that scientists have caught up and begun to seriously investigate the healing and protective powers of this remarkable, humble fruit.

Ongoing research programmes in New Zealand and around the world continue to explore how and why blackcurrants may be beneficial in so many areas of health and wellness. The value of vitamin C is already well understood to contribute to reduction of tiredness, normal immune and psychological and neurological function, protection from free radical damage and more.

But as yet, science is not in a position to make other definitive claims about the phenolics, including the deep red anthocyanins that are thought to be responsible for many of these protective powers. This will take more clinical trials and the compilation of material evidence to substantiate approved health claims. However, enough is understood about the general nutritional properties to know that blackcurrants really do deliver a daily serve of goodness.

Blackcurrants show superior levels of the antioxidant vitamin C
Blackcurrants contain a wide range of natural antioxidants including high doses of vitamin C – about four times more vitamin C than oranges and 16 times more than blueberries. They also have high concentrations of polyphenols, particularly anthocyanins. These compounds give the berries their gorgeous deep purple colour and potentially many beneficial health properties.

Encouraged by the scientific findings to date, further possible health benefits related to anthocyanins and other phenolics are now being investigated, including cancer prevention, control of diabetes, antimicrobial effects, retarding of the effects of ageing and disease, prevention of memory loss and motor skills.

New Zealand blackcurrants contain high concentrations of anthocyanins
The combination of New Zealand’s pristine environment, unpolluted air, ultraviolet light intensity and specially bred varieties results in our berries having some of the highest anthocyanin concentrations in the world.

And since most blackcurrants are consumed in drinks, it’s important that the total quantity of phenolics in blackcurrants do not reduce during pressing, bottling or storage but it is recommended that you refrigerate bottles to stabilise the red anthocyanins.

The New Zealand research programme on brain function
Studies from the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research, conducted in collaboration with Northumbria University (UK), showed that a non-pasteurised juice prepared from a new cultivar of New Zealand-grown blackcurrants positively affects brain function.

The research is the first to look at the effects of berry consumption on the cognitive performance of healthy young adults. Previous research has suggested that compounds found in certain berry fruits may act like monoamine oxidase inhibitors, similar to a class of pharmaceuticals commonly used in the treatment of both mood disorders and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

This research suggests that a daily dose of 140ml of New Zealand-grown Blackadder blackcurrant juice can both improve the mental performance indicator of reaction time and reduce the activity of monoamine oxidases (MAOs).

Plant & Food Research scientists were specifically looking for things that inhibit MAOs – which are enzymes that break down important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin, and create hydrogen peroxide which are bad for your brain.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals released by our brain that send specific messages that influence our brain and/or our body. Serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine exert great influence over our impulse control, mood, appetite, cravings, anxiety, motivation, focus, pleasure and ability to emotionally manage stress. Dopamine is also involved in quick, well-coordinated movement. Conditions such as Parkinson’s has been attributed to low dopamine levels, and depression and other mood disorders to low serotonin. Additionally, as we age, we produce less transmitters and produce more MAOs.

The potential benefits of the research are significant. If the enzyme MAO can be inhibited then it may ensure higher levels of neurotransmitters, which could benefit those that do not have enough. The suggestion that a commonly consumed fruit could potentially help maintain brain health during natural ageing is potentially ground-breaking.

These findings have been published in scientific papers and further research exploring the blackcurrant’s potential role in brain health is expected from the researchers soon.

Blackadder variety now widely available as Barker’s blackcurrant juice.
The Blackadder blackcurrant, nicknamed “Neuroberry”, has not been widely available – until now. Barker’s of Geraldine, which has been locally processing and preserving New Zealand fruit for 47 years, has been working to bring a healthful juice containing the new cultivar to market.

And, today, with support from its local Blackcurrant growers, Barker’s has re-launched its NZ Unsweetened Blackcurrant Juice, reformulated to feature 100 percent New Zealand-grown Blackadder.

The new juice, which is packed with more than 950 squeezed Blackadder blackcurrants in every bottle and three times the daily requirements of vitamin C per 200ml serve, can now be found on supermarket shelves throughout the country.

Health professionals have recognised the nutritional benefits of blackcurrants for a while now, and feel that drinking the juice regularly may be beneficial healthwise.

Fresh blackcurrants aren’t readily available all year round, and Blackadder is still a new variety, so bottling Blackadder juice offers people the opportunity to consume squeezed Blackadder juice daily.

Michael Barker says Barker’s of Geraldine is proud to continue working with New Zealand scientists and blackcurrant growers to support the health and wellness of Kiwis. “Since the research was published there has been a lot of interest so we have responded by making a squeezed Blackadder juice available.”

“It is important to note we are not claiming that consuming 140ml of Barker’s Blackadder Blackcurrant Juice daily will deliver the brain benefits observed in the research, because our Blackadder Juice has not been clinically tested. But I think there is much to gain and little to lose so I have started a daily dose regime in the hope that my brain will stay healthy while I am getting older. But I stress the key word at this stage is hope… We look forward to hearing the experiences of other people who try it – please email us at fruit@barkers.co.nz”

The juice may be diluted to taste and consumed as a hot or cold beverage, or taken undiluted as a 70ml shot twice a day. Also try in the following smoothie recipe, or as a topping for yoghurt or porridge.

Neuroberry Smoothie
Serves 2
1/3 cup Barker’s Unsweetened Blackadder Blackcurrant juice
1/2 cup Greek-style natural yoghurt
1/3 cup coconut water
1/3 cup almond milk
1 1/2 tsp Flaxseed Oil
1 cup ice cubes
a handful of shaved dark chocolate, cacao nibs/chopped almonds (for garnish)

Place all liquid ingredients and ice cubes in a blender and blitz until smooth. Garnish and serve.