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Black currant

Ribes nigrum

Family: Grossulariaceae

INTRODUCTION

Ribes nigrum, commonly known as blackcurrant or black currant, is one of about 192 species in the genus Ribes, which belongs to the currant family (Grossulariaceae).1 There are two accepted black currant varieties, R. nigrum var. kolymense and R. nigrum var. nigrum, and one synonym, Ribesium nigrum. Black currant prefers hygrophilous (growing in damp conditions) deciduous forests2 and is native to much of northern and eastern Europe, Russia,3 parts of Kazakhstan,4 Kyrgyzstan,5 Mongolia,6 Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.1 This small perennial shrub reaches 0.6-1.3 m (1.9-4.3 ft) in height and has bell-shaped, purple-pink or pink-gray flowers and small, spherical black fruits.7 Wild populations are found in damp deciduous, mixed, and coniferous forests; in the forest-steppe along the banks of lakes, streams, and rivers; on the outskirts of swamps; and in floodplain meadows,3,7,8 gorges, and mountain river valleys.9

In traditional medicine, mainly the leaves (Folia Ribis nigri) are used, while the buds (Gemmae Ribis nigri) and berries (Fructus Ribis nigri) are used less often. The berries, however, are used widely in food products. The flower buds, fruits, and leaves also are used in alcoholic beverages, such as liqueurs. Black currant buds are harvested in early spring, the leaves in summer (June-July), and the berries when they reach maturity later in summer (July-August).7 The commercial supply is obtained from both wild collection10 and cultivation.11 There are many selectively bred black currant cultivars for berry production. Development of new cultivars generally aims to improve adaptation to abiotic (e.g., drought, temperature extremes) and biotic (e.g., attacks by pathogens and pests) environmental stressors.12

Source countries for wild-collected black currant plant parts include Georgia,13 Mongolia,6 Poland,14 Romania,15 and others. Prior to the 2014 sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Russia may have been the largest producer, with an estimated 350,000 tons of berries annually (both cultivated and wild). Poland is the next largest producer of cultivated black currant berries, estimated at about 130,000 tons per year (produced by about 15,000 black currant farms),16followed by Ukraine,16,17 the United Kingdom,18 and others, including (in alphabetical order) Austria,19 Bosnia and Herzegovina,20Canada,18 China, Denmark, Estonia,18, 21 Finland, France, Germany, Hungary,18 Latvia,12 Lithuania, Montenegro,11 the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania,14,22 Serbia,11 the United States,18 and Uzbekistan.9

In a 2014 survey of 2,359 adult consumers from Finland, Germany, Italy, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom, black currant supplements ranked as the 40th (out of 40) most frequently used herbal food supplement product overall. In Finland, however, black currant supplements ranked 20th.23,24 In the United States, black currant fruit juice concentrate, fruit extract, powdered fruit, and cold pressed black currant seed oil are used as ingredients in dietary supplement products.25

HISTORY AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE

In 1700, French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) named the genus Ribes and several Ribes species in his publication Institutiones Rei Herbariae.26 Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) assigned the Latin name Ribes nigrum in his 1753 work Species Plantarum.27 Ribes means “currant,” and nigrum means “black.” The common name “currant” stems from raisins of Corinth (Greece) but was later applied also to berries of the Ribes genus.

Archaeobotanical evidence of black currant cultivation dating back to the 15th century or earlier has been uncovered at medieval West Slavic settlements and castles in present-day Poland.28 An ethnobotanical review of wild plants of Estonia from the 1770s until the mid-20th century found that black currant fruits, leaves, and twigs were used as spices in the making of beer-like beverages, birch (Betula spp., Betulaceae) sap preparations, breads, pickles, and tea infusions.29 While black currant leaf and stem are used in herbal teas in Estonia, both the fruit and leaf are used in other Estonian ethnomedicines.30 In Lithuanian ethnomedicine, preparations of black currant fruit are used as a pediatric anemia remedy, for treating scrofulosis (a type of tuberculosis) and avitaminosis (vitamin deficiency), and as an antihemorrhagic (to stop bleeding). Preparations of the leaves are used in the Vilnius region near the Lithuanian-Belarusian border as antirheumatic and stomachic (improves stomach function, aids digestion) agents.31

A survey of home remedies used in Liubań district, Belarus, found that black currant fresh fruit is used for diarrhea and hypertension and black currant leaf tea for colds, immune support, sore throat, and well-being.32 Medicinal and nutritional uses of black currant fruit juice and fruit tea infusions are also common in the Komi Republic in the Northwestern Federal District of Russia.33 In Hungarian ethnomedicine, black currant leaf is among the most frequently used plants in the treatment of circulatory system conditions.34 Ethnic Hutsuls and Romanians living in Ukraine also report using the fruits for treating the circulatory system.35 Within the UNESCO Grosses Walsertal Biosphere Reserve in Austria, villagers list black currant leaf among the most frequently used plants. The leaves, picked before the fruits ripen, are used as a component of medicinal schnapps (a type of alcoholic beverage) for relieving stomach and intestinal ailments.36 In western Europe, black currant leaf tea infusion traditionally was used as a diuretic and sudorific (to induce sweating), and the fruit juice was taken for gout and rheumatism.37

A quality standards monograph for black currant leaf entered the 1948 supplement to the sixth edition of the German Pharmacopoeia (Folia Ribis nigri DAB Erg.-B.6)38 but was not retained in subsequent editions. In 1996, a monograph entered the 10th edition of the French Pharmacopoeia (Ribis nigri folium PhFr X),39 but was superseded in 2013, when black currant leaf was admitted in the eighth supplement to the seventh edition of the European Pharmacopoeia (PhEur 7.8).40

In the United States, in 1988, a famous case that played a role in the eventual passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 involved an imported shipment of black currant seed oil (BCO) that was seized by US Marshals. The importer, Traco Labs, Inc. (Champaign, Illinois), intended to fill the oil into gelatin capsules and into bottles for sale as dietary supplement products. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) curiously reasoned that gelatin capsules were food and BCO was an unsafe food additive, and therefore asserted that BCO, when added to a gelcap, created unsafe and thus adulterated food. In 1991, the US District Court for the Central District of Illinois ruled in favor of Traco Labs and dismissed the case. In 1992, the FDA appealed the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which, in 1993, affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the importing company. The judge called the FDA’s position an “Alice-in-Wonderland approach.”41,42

CURRENT AUTHORIZED USES IN COSMETICS, FOODS, AND MEDICINES

In the United States, the FDA classifies both black currant flower buds and leaves as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), but specifically for use as a natural flavoring substance in alcoholic beverages.43 The berries mainly are used in food and beverage products (e.g., the liqueur crème de cassis). When black currant plant parts are used as components of dietary supplement products, the FDA requires notification within 30 days of marketing if a structure-function claim is made.44

In Canada, besides food and beverage use, black currant plant parts are regulated as medicinal ingredients of licensed natural health products (NHPs), which require pre-marketing authorization from the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD). Licensed NHPs that contain a black currant preparation equivalent to 20 grams of dried black currant fruit or 100 grams of fresh black currant fruit may be labeled with a claim statement to the effect of “Provides antioxidants that help protect against cell damage caused by free radicals.”45 Certain black currant ingredients also are permitted for use as non-medicinal components of licensed NHPs. For example, black currant fruit juice concentrate or fruit powder may be used as a color additive or flavor enhancer in licensed NHPs.

In the European Union (EU), black currant leaf may be used as an active ingredient of registered traditional herbal medicinal products (THMPs), in the dosage forms of herbal tea infusion or dry aqueous extract powder (in capsules or tablets), labeled with the therapeutic indications “Traditional herbal medicinal product for the relief of minor articular pain” or “Traditional herbal medicinal product to increase the amount of urine to achieve flushing of the urinary tract as an adjuvant in minor urinary complaints.”46 For use in cosmetic products in the EU, the defined ingredients “Ribes Nigrum Bud Extract” and “Ribes Nigrum Leaf Extract” are authorized for perfuming and skin conditioning functions, “Ribes Nigrum Fruit Extract” is authorized for astringent, perfuming, skin conditioning – emollient (skin-softening) functions, and “Ribes Nigrum Seed Oil” also is authorized for skin conditioning – emollient function.47

MODERN RESEARCH

Constituents and Pharmacological Effects

Traditionally, black currant leaf is the plant part most often used and described in European herbal literature. The leaves contain phenolic compounds,48-52 flavonoids (e.g., quercetin, kaempferol and proanthocyanidins), and flavonoid glycosides (e.g., isoquercitrin and rutin).50,53-59 Also present are hydroxycinnamic acids60 and essential oil.53 The total content of phenolic compounds is reportedly higher in black currant leaves compared to ripe fruit.49,52,60,61 Analgesic,50,53,54 anti-inflammatory,62-66antioxidant,50,65,67 and diuretic properties have been reported in various in vitro and in vivo studies of leaf preparations.53,54 Other biological effects of black currant leaf extracts include anti-influenza activity in vivo and in vitro,49,68 antimicrobial activity in vitro,51and vasorelaxation effects in vitro.69

Black currant research typically focuses on the fruit due to its diverse range of polyphenolic compounds and high levels of anthocyanins (ACNs). The four primary ACNs found in the fruit are cyanidin-3-O-glucoside, cyanidin-3-O-rutinoside, delphinidin-3-O-glucoside, and delphinidin-3-O-rutinoside.70-78 Flavonoids (proanthocyanidins), flavonols (myricetin, quercetin, kaempferol), hydroxycinnamic acids, and phenolic acids also have been identified in the fruits.70,71,79 Additionally, hydrolyzable tannins, stilbenes, vitamin C, pectins, organic acids, soluble sugars, and both insoluble and soluble fibers are present.70,80,81

A broad range of pharmacological effects, including antidiabetic,77,82 anti-inflammatory,83,84 anti-influenza,85 antimicrobial,86antioxidant,71,74,79 antispasmodic,87 and hypocholesterolemic88 properties have been reported for various fruit preparations (e.g., whole fruit, fruit juice, fruit extracts of various compositions) in in vitro and in vivo studies. Black currant polyphenolic extracts also have been shown to reduce allergen-induced lung inflammation.89-91

Phytochemical constituents reported in other plant parts include flavonol glycosides of myricetin, isorhamnetin, and kaempferol in the buds60 and essential fatty acids, gamma-linolenic, alpha-linolenic, and stearidonic acids in the seed oil.70,76,81,92-94Linoleic and gamma-linolenic acids,92 which are found in black currant seed oil, are associated with anti-inflammatory properties.70

Toxicity

Black currant leaf toxicity and safety studies are scant.54 One study in rats found oral use of black currant leaf (1 g of hydroethanolic extract equivalent to 1.8 g of leaf) demonstrated no toxicity indications, as well as no signs of gastric ulceration (2 g/kg/day for 21 days or 1.34 g/kg/day for 28 days).62,95 Additionally, black currant leaf extracts showed no cytotoxic activity in human endothelial cells (besides very-high-concentration extracts).69 A black currant fruit skin extract demonstrated no toxicity signs in a chronic (22 weeks) in vivo rodent model.96

Human use of black currant leaf is considered safe due to its long-term traditional uses and lack of associated side effects.53However, a few authoritative references mention that use of black currant leaf is contraindicated when reduced fluid intake is recommended for a health condition (e.g., renal or severe cardiac disease).53,97 The fruit is highly valuable as a dietary source of important nutrients and phytoconstituents and is considered safe at recommended intake levels. More long-term and extensive human studies are needed on black currant, as many of the existing studies are limited and acute. The safety and efficacy of various black currant fruit preparation types and the bioavailability of black currant fruit constituents have yet to be fully established.70,98

Human Clinical Studies

Most black currant clinical studies pertain to the fruits, and no known human trials on leaf preparations exist. The trials on black currant fruits vary by preparation type (juices, extracts, powders) and constituents (e.g., concentration levels of polyphenols, such as ACNs). Studies evaluating the beneficial protective mechanisms of black currant fruit have focused on cardiovascular,94,98,99metabolic,98,100,101 and ocular health,102-104 as well as oxidative stress from exercise performance.105-108

It is well established that berries in general are a rich source of polyphenols that may provide protective (e.g., antioxidant) effects. Nutritional epidemiological reviews mention black currants as a lesser-known source of berry flavonoids, which have shown potential to lessen associated risk factors of cardiovascular disease.80,109 This is especially true with higher ACN-containing berries.100 In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, low- and high-concentration black currant juice was given to individuals who consumed less than two servings of fruit and vegetables per day. After six weeks, researchers reported improved vascular health and decreased oxidative stress in the group that consumed high-concentration black currant juice (provided by GlaxoSmithKline; 20% juice; 10.2 mg vitamin C, 81.5 mg total phenols, 14.3 mg ACNs/100 mL).99 Haswell et al (2021) reviewed studies of black currant fruit for metabolic syndrome in animals and humans and found a few acute studies that reported improvements in glucose regulation.98

In a small double-blind, placebo-controlled study of healthy individuals performing computer tasks, a group that received 50 mg of black currant ACNs per day showed significant improvement in visual fatigue compared to baseline.102 A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled (RDBPC) study, submitted for publication at the time of this writing (May 2022), evaluated a standardized black currant fruit extract (CurrantCraft®, IPRONA SpA, Lana, Italy; study sponsored by Artemis International Inc., Fort Wayne, Indiana) to better understand impacts on visual health symptoms associated with prolonged digital screen time. The authors suggest beneficial effects on blurred vision.110 Additionally, studies have reported improvements in open-angle glaucoma.103,104 Another RDBPC study followed individuals who were diagnosed with open-angle glaucoma and were given black currant ACNs (50 mg per day) for 24 months. At the end of the study, the authors reported that the biomarker plasma endothelin-1 (ET-1) had normalized, which may correlate with improvement of ocular blood circulation, potentially reducing ophthalmological disease progression.103 Black currant fruit extracts also have been shown to alleviate oxidative stress in acute exercise performance studies.105-108

ADULTERATION AND SUBSTITUTION

Juices of cherry (Prunus spp., Rosaceae),111 chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, Rosaceae),112 strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa, Rosaceae), and others113 are known adulterants of black currant juice. Mass spectrometry-based studies have been carried out for determining the geographical origins of fresh black currant berries. High-performance liquid chromatography coupled with ultraviolet light (HPLC-UV) detection can be used to analyze ACN contents and profiles to authenticate ACN-containing products. HPLC combined with thin-layer chromatography (TLC) can also be used for ACN and anthocyanidin fingerprints to authenticate berry juice.112 Blackberry (Rubus spp., Rosaceae) and black currant are among the darkest-colored berry species, which correlates with a high total ACN content. The ACN profiles of these berries can be differentiated with existing HPLC methods.114 Pagès-Hélary et al (2022)115 attempted to determine the typicality of different black currant cultivars that are known to possess distinctly different organoleptic properties and concluded that they believe they identified the important molecules to target for future studies on black currant aroma and flavor compounds.

SUSTAINABILITY AND FUTURE OUTLOOK

In the EU, the conservation status of wild R. nigrum has been assessed as Least Concern (LC), meaning it is not considered to be threatened there, according to the Red List Categories and Criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).116However, regional assessments vary within Europe. The Czech Red List assessment placed R. nigrum in its Category C4b, meaning it is a rarer species that has not been studied well enough and requires further attention.117 In Poland, wild populations of R. nigrum are partly protected under Ministry of Environment regulations,28 which permit predefined quantities for wild collection, only within specific time frames and with permits from a provincial conservatory of nature.118

In Bulgaria, the species has been assessed as Critically Endangered (CR) using IUCN criteria.119 Black currant occurs in Bulgaria only in the western Rhodope Mountains alongside mountain streams and rivers. Factors that negatively impact the declining wild population include changes in the flow level of streams and rivers, as well as deforestation and construction of reservoirs. An ex situ conservation trial in Bulgaria found that mature rooted shoots could be collected from some wild bushes, cultivated successfully, and, after about four years, could be reintroduced into the natural habitat to augment wild populations.120

Also according to IUCN criteria, R. nigrum is classified as Near Threatened (NT) in the Carpathian Mountains regions of Poland, Romania, and Ukraine.121 In the Murmansk Region, Northwestern Federal District of Russia, R. nigrum has a regional Red List conservation status of category 3, meaning that it is rare and needs monitoring.122 Wild black currant trees also occur within specially protected nature reserves in some countries, for example in the Salkyn-Tör State Nature Park in Kyrgyzstan.5

While there is a considerable amount of certified organic wild collection of black currant fruits and leaves,10 the vast majority of black currant fruits come to the market from cultivation, with an ever-increasing global demand for certified organic berries. The biggest current risk to black currant production and trade may be geopolitical due to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the millions of displaced people fleeing to neighboring countries. This may result in labor disruptions for the 2022 harvests in Russia and Ukraine and may impact demand from other producing countries. Historically, a significant amount of annual global black currant harvesting takes place in Russia and in neighboring republics of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan), as well as in former Soviet bloc countries (e.g., Hungary, Poland, and Romania).

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