Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush… If you’re like many of us, this old English nursery rhyme may be the extent of your knowledge of mulberries. But there’s so much more to these fruits than nursery rhymes. In fact, mulberry antioxidants are becoming more and more recognized for their potential beneficial effects on health and well-being.
So if you’re unfamiliar with the humble mulberry, come with us as we explore the amazing antioxidant potential of this close relative of figs and jackfruit.
Getting to Know Mulberries
While the English nursery rhyme refers to a bush, mulberries—which are members of the Moraceae family—actually grow on trees. And they’re not berries either. In fact, mulberries are what’s known as collective fruits, which means that instead of forming from a single flower, they grow out of a cluster.
There are fewer than 20 species of mulberry trees, and their fruits can be red, white, or black. But the three main species are the red mulberry (Morus rubra), white mulberry (Morus alba), and black mulberry (Morus nigra). And in another ironic twist, these names have nothing to do with the color of their fruit because each tree can sport various shades.
Mulberries also resemble blackberries, though mulberries are quite a bit larger and have a more oval shape. In addition, even though darker shades of mulberries may appear to be the same color as a ripe blackberry, they contain different types of pigments that are known for staining pretty much everything they touch.
The three main species of mulberry trees also originate from different parts of the world. The red mulberry is native to eastern North America, while the black mulberry is native to Asia and the white mulberry hails from China.
Unlike the red and black varieties, the white mulberry tree is probably more appreciated for its role in silk production than for its fruit, as the silkworms who create the silk we love in everything from our clothing to our upholstery eat the fresh mulberry leaves from this species.
White, black, and red mulberries also have different flavors—flavors that seem to progress from very sweet to just right as the fruits get darker.
For example, white mulberries are more sweet than tart, while black mulberries have a good balance between the two and red mulberries are somewhere in between—though sometimes red mulberries taste enough like black mulberries that many people have trouble telling them apart.
Like all berries, mulberries are a good source of many nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin E, and phytochemicals—plant chemicals known for their impressive anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Health Benefits of Mulberry Antioxidants
Mulberries are packed with phytochemicals called polyphenols. This group of phenolic compounds makes up the largest known category of phytochemicals and includes powerful flavonoids like gallic acid, quercetin, rutin, resveratrol, and anthocyanins—especially cyanidin-3-rutinoside and cyanidin-3-glucoside.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits specific to each of these substances.
- Gallic acid: This polyphenol is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It protects the body from oxidative stress and exhibits both anticarcinogenic and antimicrobial properties.
- Quercetin: This flavonoid is known for its potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacity. It also has antiviral properties. It helps prevent allergies by blocking histamine, and it’s been shown in studies to increase the effectiveness of traditional cancer therapy.
- Rutin: This polyphenol is known to inhibit a protein linked to the formation of blood clots. It’s also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce the pain of arthritis.
- Resveratrol: This potent flavonoid is one of the hottest tickets in the dietary supplement industry today. It has both antibacterial and antifungal properties, acts as a phytoestrogen, lowers blood pressure, protects the heart and brain from oxidative damage, and can inhibit all stages of cancer.
- Anthocyanins: This group of polyphenols exhibits powerful anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant activity and has been shown to protect the liver against injury, lower blood pressure, improve vision, and suppress the proliferation of cancer cells.
All known polyphenols act as natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and can protect cells from oxidative damage related to free radicals. The free radical scavenging activity of polyphenols has also been shown in studies to aid in the prevention of many chronic diseases that have been linked to inflammation, including inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What’s more, the ability of phytochemicals to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar is associated with a decreased risk of both heart disease and diabetes.
Now let’s take a look at a sampling of studies that have investigated the health benefits of mulberry antioxidants.
What the Studies Have to Say
A study in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that mulberry root bark exhibits both anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties and has the ability to stop the growth of colon cancer cells.
A study in the journal Cancer Letters found that cyanidin-3-rutinoside and cyanidin-3-glucoside inhibit the ability of lung cancer to metastasize.
In a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers found that mulberry fruit extract reduced inflammation in rats with arthritis.
A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that mulberry fruit extract prevented neurotoxicity in brain cells and stopped symptoms of Parkinson’s disease from occurring.
In a study published in the American Journal of Agricultural and Biological Sciences, researchers found that mulberry fruit powder protected the brains of rodents from cognitive impairment following a stroke.
A study in the journal Urologia Internationalis found that the cyanidins in mulberries were able to prevent erectile dysfunction in rats with diabetes-induced oxidative stress.
Finally, a study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that mulberry extract reduced the accumulation of lipids in the livers of rats fed a high-fat diet, “dramatically” preventing liver damage, possibly by inhibiting oxidative damage to mitochondria—the energy centers of the cells. This is an important finding, as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is one of the most common causes of liver disease in the United States.
While the research investigating the health benefits of phytochemicals is still really in its infancy—and scientists believe there are yet more of these chemicals to be discovered—studies have consistently shown the amazing potential of these plant nutrients.
And as we’ve seen, the mulberry we remember from the popular nursery rhyme is positively brimming with these beneficial compounds. So keep an eye out for these superfruits. But remember that they’re highly perishable, so your best bet is your local farmers market—though you can probably find dried berries online or at your local health food store.
In addition, mulberry trees often grow wild, so you may not have to look any further than your own backyard or local park.
So if you’re strolling along one day and bump into a mulberry tree and long, luscious berries fall to the ground, scoop them up—and don’t even bother removing the long green stems because they’re perfectly edible too!