Could this fruit improve your heart, your brain and your sex life?

Blackcurrants come with a wealth of health benefits and they grow brilliantly in the UK. So why aren’t we eating more of them?

In July and August, we’re a nation obsessed with strawberries. Darker, sharper and more distinctly British, the blackcurrant also comes into season. In the UK we are said to harvest 13,000 tonnes of blackcurrants a year but most of them won’t be bought fresh. The majority will be used for commercially produced cordial.

Fresh blackcurrants pack a health punch, containing four times as much Vitamin C as oranges and they are full of antioxidants. In the future, blackcurrants could be used for medicinal purposes, too. Powders and extracts are being tested in studies on everything from blood pressure to brainpower. What is this forgotten fruit good for?

Could they really improve your sex life?

Aedín Cassidy a professor at Queen’s University, Belfast has carried out research into whether the humble blackcurrant could help men who struggle with erectile dysfunction.

“Most erectile dysfunction cases are caused by insufficient blood flow,” starts the expert. She adds: “And some flavonoids, including the anthocyanins (responsible for the fruit's purple colour) which are found in blackcurrants, can improve blood flow by making your arteries more flexible and opening up your blood vessels.

“In a large prospective study of over 25,000 men tracked over 10 years we showed that just three or more servings a week of foods including anthocyanin-rich berries/blackcurrants were 19 percent less likely to have erectile dysfunction than men who didn’t eat these foods.”

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Why are blackcurrants so good for you?

Children in the UK were given blackcurrant cordial during World War Two because of its high Vitamin C content

Anthocyanin's powerful effects on improving blood flow has benefits for other areas of health, too, says Cassidy: “The evidence base for anthocyanins has been growing over the last decade... In particular, for heart and cognitive health and more recently for other health conditions including Parkinson’s.”

Professor of Exercise Physiology Mark Willems from the University of Chichester has carried out multiple studies into the benefits of blackcurrants, specifically in the form of a concentrated extracts. But he’s a big fan of the fruit. “If you look in the literature on the reported effects of blackcurrants compared to other berries, it is… well I wouldn't use the word superfood, but they clearly provide benefits that you may not find with other berries.”

“In collaboration with a Japanese university [Nippon Sport University, Tokyo], we have shown that you can reduce the stiffness of blood vessels in elderly individuals.

Willems explains that when people have stiff blood vessels it means the vessels “can’t really dilate or expand and this has a negative consequence on blood pressure over time.” As part of the joint study, elderly people were given a blackcurrant extract for seven days and at the end of the period, the stiffness of their blood vessels had decreased, he says.

The professor's research into the benefits for elite sportspeople like climbers has had encouraging results too, showing signs that the powder could help muscles recuperate better after exercise. And further research has also shown benefits for even moderately active adults.

Could blackcurrants make you smell better?

A very small study also showed that blackcurrant concentrate could help improve body odour. “If you’re above the age of 45 you're releasing particular gases from your skin that gives you what people refer to as ‘old people smell’,” says Willems.

As the body ages, oxidative stress can produce gases that come through the skin. While the study was small with just 14 people above the age of 55 taking part, it was shown that consuming blackcurrant powder for seven days produced a 25 percent reduction in these gases. “I would be very interested to see whether you can achieve that with other berries as well…” muses Mark, before adding: “But it's very likely due to the antioxidant effects [from blackcurrants], because the compounds that gives you that unwanted smell is a consequence of oxidative stress.”

However, it’s not all good news

Willems explains that blackcurrant concentrates can be expensive, so aren’t a solution for many people. Neither is it a wonder drug for other issues: “I think we still need to be careful with our claims that it's useful for weight management. It’s not a pill that will solve all your problems,” he adds.

Willems also explains that much of the research is in its infancy and longer trials are required. So be wary of people claiming it’s a miracle cure. “I stick to what have we found and, for example we have information that it doesn't seem to work as well in people who have Southeast Asian heritage. So, there’s still plenty to learn and consider.”

How to use blackcurrants when cooking

Chef Loopy Folkes has produced lots of blackcurrant recipes in conjunction with the UK organisation Blackcurrant Foundation. “UK blackcurrants have a harvest period that runs from July through August and should be picked just after they have turned that lovely deep dark bluey black. They’re best picked as whole trusses as this will keep them fresher for slightly longer. You will see them on the shelves of supermarkets and farmers' markets from late summer onwards.”

The culinary expert has a long relationship with the fruit – regularly picking them as a child and turning them into blackcurrant jam. “They are most commonly used to make breakfast recipes and desserts such as smoothies and pancakes, tarts and jams, where their tartness is mellowed with creamy, yoghurty ingredients. However, they really complement meats as well, especially game such as pheasant, duck and venison.”

Blackcurrants buddy up with other berries really well, in a classic summer pudding or in a berry ice cream. If you are blessed with more than you can eat, spread the berries on a baking tray and freeze before decanting into a freezer-proof bag or box. They will keep for months and can be added to your favourite recipes.

Loopy’s top tips when cooking with blackcurrants:

When using in cakes and bakes: Fold them into the mixture gently right before baking so that they hold their shape; this way, they won't make your bake soggy, and you will have lovely pockets of blackcurrant tartness running throughout.

Don’t wear your best outfit: If you are cooking with a lot of them, then wear an apron to avoid staining clothes.

Use local honey as a sweetener rather than sugar: Local honey will add depth to the flavour of the berries and a touch of sweetness.

Think savoury: They make wonderful dressings for salads, vegetarian dishes, as well as for fish and meat.