Every year another exotic “superfruit” comes along. The latest is sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L.), an orange berry that grows widely across Asia and Europe. It has been part of traditional Asian medicine for centuries—used to treat heart disease, stomach ulcers, skin problems and other conditions.
In Finland and other countries, sea buckthorn is popular as a juice and jam. In the U.S., you can find it all over the Internet and in health-food stores, sold as juice, oil, capsules and topical preparations. An increasing number of cosmetics and other skin-care products boast of having this “anti-aging” ingredient, too.
What’s in the sea buckthorn berry?
Sea buckthorn contains a range of healthful compounds including unsaturated fats, phytosterols (which help lower cholesterol), carotenoids (beta carotene, lycopene and zeaxanthin, among others) and vitamins E and K. The berries are especially high in vitamin C (200 to 300 milligrams in three ounces) and flavonoid antioxidants. But as with all products derived from plants, the composition of sea buckthorn varies, depending on the subspecies, growing conditions, climate, time of harvest, storage and processing.
The proof is in the jam
Lab and animal studies have shown that sea buckthorn has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting effects. There’s some evidence it can promote skin healing, boost immunity, improve cholesterol and inhibit colon and liver cancer cells—at least in mice and test tubes.
Studies in people (especially those published in English) are more limited, however— and the results far from conclusive. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008, for example, found that sea buckthorn, taken for three months, decreased a marker of systemic inflammation—but it did not reduce the number of colds and other infections, compared to a placebo group. Another study by the same researchers in 2009 found that it raised blood antioxidant levels—but had no effect on cholesterol levels.
In a study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry in 2000, people with atopic dermatitis who consumed sea buckthorn oil had slightly increased levels of a fatty acid in their skin, which may be beneficial due to anti-inflammatory effects—but the researchers did not look at whether symptoms actually improved. More study is needed to see if it might help treat this and other skin disorders.
Overall, there’s insufficient evidence to support the use of sea buckthorn for anything it’s touted for (including heart disease, ulcers, colds and liver disease), according to the Natural Standard, which evaluates complementary and alternative therapies. We found no evidence that it will help people lose weight, despite claims made on the Dr. Oz Show that omega-7 fats in the oil inhibit fat storage. Don’t buy it thinking it will “give you more energy than ever” or reverse the signs of aging.
Bottom line: Sea buckthorn is a healthy food. The very tart juice is tasty when combined with other juices and is high in vitamin C and other healthful substances. But as with other so-called superfruits, it’s not a miracle food. Beware of marketers who sell the juice at exorbitant prices for its supposed medicinal qualities. You’d be just as well off with other berry juices (and jams) that cost much less. We don’t recommend sea buckthorn supplements or oil.