Bilberry is a shrub belonging to the Ericaceae family. This family contains around 4,250 species, most of which are shrubs, and are identified by their alternating leaves that have no stipules.1,2 Other well-known examples include blueberry, cranberry and Labrador tea.3 Bilberry, in particular, is native to Europe and typically grows in moors, meadows and forests.4,5 It is also referred to as the European blueberry, huckleberry and whortleberry.6
What Is Bilberry?
Bilberry is a shrub often confused with blueberry due to their similar appearances. But while bilberries are native to Europe, blueberries grow mostly in North America.7 There are ways to distinguish them from each other. Bilberry fruits usually measure at about one-fourth of an inch in diameter, compared to blueberries, which can measure up to three-fourths of an inch in diameter.8,9 Bilberry is softer compared to blueberry as well, and the taste is sweet, with a slight tart and acidic quality.10
The plant itself is small, typically only reaching a height of about 30 centimeters (12 inches).11 It can thrive in the wild, with boreal forests in Northern Europe and Northern Asia having an abundance of these berries.12 However, you can grow them in your home as well using seeds; just make sure you have acidic soil to help them thrive.13
Bilberries prefer colder climates, but they can also be cultivated in warmer regions, as long as the temperature does not go up too high. If you're planting bilberries in colder regions, plant them in full sun, though they may require partial shade when grown in warmer parts.14
The Health Benefits of Bilberry
Consuming bilberry may provide positive effects to your health. It has been known to help:
Maintain eye health — Bilberry is known mainly for its benefits in promoting eye health. During World War II, British pilots ate bilberry jam to improve their night vision.15 Due to this, there have been numerous studies tackling how bilberry can affect cataracts, retinopathy and macular degeneration.16
In one 1989 study from the Annali di Ottalmologia e Clinica Oculistica, a combination of bilberry anthocyanins (a type of antioxidant) and vitamin E had a 97% success rate in hindering cataract progression.17 In a 2010 study from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, bilberry was found to help fight against endotoxin-induced uveitis (inflammation of the uvea) in mice.
- Maintain heart health — Consuming this tiny fruit may provide big benefits for your heart. According to one study wherein participants consumed moderate amounts of bilberry for eight weeks, researchers noted that the berries helped decrease HDL (good) cholesterol levels and helped improve platelet function and blood pressure.19
- Lower the risk of cancer and DNA damage — The heather family is rich in anthocyanins that may help reduce your risk of cancer and protect your DNA from damage.20,21 In a 2004 study from Biochemistry (Biokhimiia), researchers discovered that consuming anthocyanin-rich foods may help inhibit key regulators that can lead to cancer, as well as helping reduce tumor growth.22
Reduce inflammation — Inflammation is your body's defense mechanism when it deals with disease and eliminates pathogens.23 However, when it becomes chronic, it can affect your quality of life. In this regard, the anthocyanins of bilberry may help reduce your risk of unwanted inflammation.24
In a 2007 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers noted that the anthocyanin-rich bilberry extracts helped inhibit factors that stimulate an inflammatory response. They went on to suggest that anthocyanin foods may have a positive effect on alleviating chronic inflammatory diseases.25
Check out the table below for more information about the health-boosting nutrients that bilberries have to offer:26
Bilberry Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 100 grams
Different Uses of Bilberry
In the medieval ages, consuming bilberry was believed to help relieve diarrhea, mouth inflammation and urinary problems.27 In Scotland and Ireland, it was used to dye wool, linen and paper.28 Nowadays, bilberry is mainly added to various dishes. The best-known preparations include:29
- Raw — Bilberry can be eaten raw for a quick snack.30
- Tea — Bilberry can be enjoyed as a warm cup of tea.
- Pie — You can create a delicious pie by using bilberries as the filling.
- Juice — The berries can be turned into a juice that you can enjoy any time of the day.
Bilberry Healthy Recipes:
How to Make Bilberry Tea
Bilberry is traditionally eaten raw, but this may not be palatable to your taste. If you want to try bilberry, you can make tea out of it, allowing you to obtain its health benefits easily. Another advantage of making your own tea is that the ingredients are fresh, so you can be sure that it does not contain preservatives and toxins that manufacturers usually use.
✓ 1 to 3 tablespoons of crushed dried bilberries, depending on your preference
✓ 1 cup of water
- Place the dried bilberries in your cup.
- Pour boiled water into the cup.
- Steep the mixture for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Serve and enjoy.
Note: If you don't want bilberry chunks in your tea, you can boil them then strain the liquid afterward.
(Recipe adapted from The People's Pharmacy31)
Bilberry Can Cause These Two Side Effects
The great thing about bilberry is that it is generally safe to eat. However, it has been known to produce a few side effects that you should know about.
If you're currently taking blood-thinning medication for an ongoing condition, bilberry may interfere with its function. It's believed that the antioxidants in bilberry may thin your blood as well, which can make blood clotting difficult when you sustain a wound or cut during your treatment.32
In addition, bilberry can amplify the effects of diabetes medication, since it may help lower blood sugar levels. If the two are combined, you may develop hypoglycemia, which is a condition marked by blood sugar levels lower than the normal, safe range. It's highly recommended that you do not consume bilberry if you're currently taking diabetes medication.33