If you live in America, perhaps the only food you knowingly encounter containing this ingredient is the venison sandwich at Arby’s. For seven bucks, it’s a fast food delicacy that’s offered seasonally. There’s juniper berry sauce on that deer meat.
You may be unknowingly consuming it in the form of an alcoholic drink. Green juniper berries, which are not ripe, give gin its distinctive flavor. In fact, this drink’s name is a shortened version of the French word, genièvre, which is their word for the plant.
And if you were an Egyptian pharaoh back in the day, you were using it for something important but the reason remains a mystery. They were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, despite the fact that the closet growing trees are in Greece. See Sacred Luxuries for details.
What are juniper berries?
Technically not a berry, these are fleshy round cones (seeds) from juniper trees. Ranging from ¼ to 1 inch in diameter, they’re used as a pungent spice in European cuisine and to flavor gin. Their essential oil has been used in traditional medicine.
Don’t confuse them with juneberries, which are something different.
Berries grow on all species of juniper, though not all of them are edible. The Tam Juniper shrub (Juniperus sabina) is native to southern Europe and is popular for landscaping in the US. Its berries are not edible, because they’re toxic to humans.
With all the species, you will only find them on the female plants. Males make brown cones which don’t look like fruit.
The common juniper (Juniperus communis) is native to the northern US, Canada, Europe, and Asia. You can eat juniper berries from this plant. It’s the most common kind used for making the spice, which is safe to consume in reasonable quantity.
In addition to the common juniper, other edible varieties include:
- Juniperus californica
- Juniperus chinensis
- Juniperus deppeana
- Juniperus drupacea
- Juniperus excels
- Juniperus oxycedrus
- Juniperus phoenicea
With the exception of pine nuts, these fruit-like cones are the only common food that comes from conifer trees.
What do they taste like?
If you compare the average fresh juniper berry vs. blueberry, both look similar in size and color when ripe, yet they’re unrelated and taste nothing alike.
Juniper berries can be eaten fresh or dried, whole or ground, raw or cooked. They have an intense taste and scent; that of turpentine from pine. This flavor is sharp, intense, and has hints of citrus. Because it’s strong, it’s only used as a spice.
You’re not going to eat a dish of them like you would blueberries.
The main flavor compound in the berries of juniper is pinene, which is the same thing that gives pine trees their distinct smell.
The berries are entirely responsible for giving gin its signature taste. Without them, gin is a neutral spirit, as it can be made from any grain. Both gin and vodka are 80 proof. The only difference between them is that gin has juniper flavoring added.
Cooking with juniper berries is the healthiest way to consume them. They work with game meats like venison, rabbit, and duck. Use for savory casseroles, marinades, and even sweet desserts like cake.
Many British dessert recipes make use of them, like the one for a vanilla, fig, and juniper cake.
Rhubarb and juniper berry jam is another sighting you may encounter in the UK. Or you may see it used as a flavor enhancer for chocolate bars and pear pies. We hear that juniper berry tea is popular in Australia and New Zealand.
Back here in the US, that Arby’s Roast Town sandwich may be the only food you will come across!
Since they are an uncommon food in the United States, juniper berries are not listed in the USDA National Nutrient Database. Sellers market them as either a spice or a dietary supplement, both of which are exempt from having to list nutrition facts on the packaging.
At an independent natural grocery, we found this label on a bulk jar they carried of the dried berries. The brand was Frontier Organics. 1g of carbs per 1/2 teaspoon is listed, which equates to 4 calories. This means 1 teaspoon of dried juniper berries will be 8 calories.
Since they are about as big as a blueberry, keep in mind that whether it’s a half or full, it’s really a heaping teaspoon. Not one that’s level.
Data on vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional values are not listed.
Health benefits being researched
There is almost no human research and limited laboratory studies to date, which means all benefits remain theoretical and unproven. That said, here’s what’s being talked about…
1. Potent antioxidant activity
The amount of antioxidants in juniper berry is high and easily exceeds that of most real berry fruit, based on their ORAC values:
- Ripe blue juniper = 8,890 to 76,770
- Immature green juniper = 8,420 to 80,260
These come from a series of tests done in Norway on 6 different sources. All were in the dried form.
These ORAC values rank it right along other superfoods. Maqui berry powder is 27,600 and acai powder is 102,700. (1)
2. Relief of gas and bloating
There’s almost no research to validate this, but the medicinal uses for juniper berry essential oil throughout history have included the prevention of gas and bloating.
Here’s how Pantologia, which was an encyclopedia from nearly 200 years ago (1819) described what the berries were used for:
A “carminative” was a drug that reduced flatulence. The dosage was just 2-4 drops of oil.
To date, the essential oil of juniper berry has only been studied in cows for digestion. It did appear to help them, but they have rumens, which are quite different than a human stomach. (2)
3. Diuretic and kidney stimulant
You may have noticed in that 200 year-old book that it said “a larger dose proves highly diuretic” and “to provoke the urinal discharge.” Traditional medicine has long used it for those purposes, though only in recent decades has it been scientifically evaluated.
The glomerular filtration rate (GFR) is a test considered to be the gold standard for measuring kidney function. Research has reported that terpinen-4-ol, which is a volatile oil in juniper, increases the GFR rate and therefore, can act as a diuretic. (3)
However this is not conclusively proven and some research contradicts it.
In a study where rats were given various dosages for 28 days straight, no change in their kidneys was observed. No toxicity was observed either. (4)
Terpinen-4-ol is also found in nutmeg and tea tree oil.
4. Dieting and weight loss
Will eating juniper berry or oil help you lose weight?
It has been reported that Native Americans would eat the berries to curb their appetite during times of famine, or when food was temporarily unavailable. (5)
On the other hand, some say that juniper berry tea helps your appetite if you drink it before a meal.
So which is it?
Since neither side effect has been clinically studied, neither can be conclusively claimed. Science would suggest what Indians used them for – suppressing appetite – seems more likely. This is because when we eat bitter foods, we are preconditioned to lose our appetite.
Given the bitter flavor of these berries and in particular, the essential oil, they might very well reduce one’s urge to eat.
A fascinating book which talks about how body’s reaction to bitter flavors is The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants.
5. Natural remedy for insomnia
Doterra’s website claims the oil “has a calming and grounding effect” and bloggers say it can help you “gain more restful sleep” etc.
Is there any truth to these claims?
Aromatherapy using various essential oils has long been promoted for helping with insomnia. (8)
When it comes to juniper berry essential oil, as part of a mixture, it has been found to prolong sleep time in rats.
In a human study with patients who used benzodiazepines for insomnia, 26 out of 29 were able to gradually reduce their dose of medication when the fragrance was used in bed. 12 of them ended up no longer needing the drug for sleep at all!
The essential oil mixture also contained sandalwood, rose, and orris, so it’s unknown as to whether or not the juniper was responsible for this apparent benefit. (9)
6. Used in cancer research
In the PubMed database, there are over 30 published papers relating to cancer research and the juniper plant. None are human studies, though many do involve cultured human cells in a laboratory setting.
Leaf extracts of the Juniperus foetidissima demonstrated “moderate cytotoxicity” against bladder and ovarian cancer cell lines. (10)
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer in adults.
An ethanol extract was made using the branches and leaves of Juniperus chinensis (Chinese juniper) and tested in the lab using tumor-bearing mice. These are immunodeficient mice that are designed to grow human cancer cells when they’re implanted.
What they called the active ingredient, CBT-143-S-F6F7, was shown to reduce the tumor growth in these mice when compared to those without it.
The dosage used on the mice was 100 mg of CBT-143-S-F6F7 per kilogram of body weight. (11)
Cancer cells often evade apoptosis, which is our body’s process of programmed cell death. The University of Helsinki published a study using common juniper berry extract and cultured neuroblastoma cancer cells (commonly found in adrenal glands). The said the results suggested (12):
“…induced the p53-associated apoptosis through the potentiation and synergism by several phenolic compounds.”
As a reminder, this is all preliminary lab research and it’s unknown if it works in humans and whether or not these concentrated extracts are safe or not. Do not use this plant to treat any disease.
Remember that compound terpinen-4-ol mentioned above in number 3? Well in addition to being a diuretic, it’s been reported to exhibit antifungal activity. It’s actually the reason why Norwegian farmers use juniper wood to make fence poles. This terpene compound makes it highly resistant to rot. (16)
The chemical composition of juniper berry essential oil is:
- 17% alpha-pinene
- 84% beta-pinene
- 55% sabinene
- 52% limonene
- 33% mircene
That’s for the same species used to make spice, Juniperus communis. When this oil was tested against 3 types of yeast and 7 types of yeast-like fungi, it was reported to have a “strong fungicidal activity” with the most potent effect being on Candida yeast. (17)
Candida albicans is of particular interest to human health, because it causes vaginal yeast infections, oral thrush, and can even enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body. (18)
Another species of juniper berry (Juniperus drupacea L.) has also shown antifungal activity against Candida yeast, as well as Aspergillus niger, which is black mold. (19)
Given its antifungal activity, it should come as no surprise that this essential oil is toxic to numerous type of bacteria, at least in lab experiments.
Staph infections are caused by Staphylococcus aureus. This nasty bacteria can manifest itself inside your body as well as on your skin, causing boils and worse. Juniper berry extract was found to have “good antibacterial activity” against Gram positive bacteria in general and in particular, appeared most effective against Staphylococcus in lab tests.
The minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) was 78.12 µg/mL. That’s a concentration of just 0.0078%. (20)
For Gram-negative bacteria like E. coli and Klebsiella, juniper oil doesn’t appear to work that well. (21)
Scientists suspect the compounds responsible for its natural antibacterial benefit are:
Since these are all volatile oils, their highest concentration will be in the pure essential oil. Dried juniper berries will contain them, but in a concentration that’s far less than 1%. (22)
9. Blood pressure reduction
A university in France tested essential oil made from Juniperus phoenicea berries and leaves on rats. They observed anti-hypertensive activity.
They said there was a strong correlation between the antioxidant activity and the lowering of blood pressure lowering. That doesn’t mean the two thing are related, but they suspected it might be. (23)
In another study using rats, this time diabetic ones, they saw a hypolipidemic effect – meaning there was a lowering of lipids in the blood, like cholesterol and triglycerides. Not directly related to blood pressure, however they too are related to risk of strokes and heart attacks. (24)
10. Blood sugar reduction
Decoctions made using Juniperus oxycedrus berries are used in Turkey for alleged blood sugar lowering. This traditional medicine is typically consumed in the form of a tea, made from crushed juniper berries.
Is there any evidence to support this?
A Turkish university put it to the test using both normal and diabetic rats. The berry extract was analyzed and it was determined that the shikimic acid may be its active ingredient. They fed this shikimic acid to the rats for 8 days and on average, there was a 24% decrease in blood glucose levels. (25)
Another study out of Turkey thinks this might be happening because the berries inhibit digestive enzymes, which in turn, slows down and/or prevents the absorption of some carbs. (26)
Nearly twenty years earlier, a university in Spain reported similar results in rats using a juniper berry decoction. (27)
The small amounts of the dried berry used to spice food are believed to be relatively safe. Juniper berry essential oil is also listed in the FDA’s Title 21, Section 182.20. That document lists essential oils “generally recognized as safe for their intended use.” Very few are listed as being approved for use in food, so this is noteworthy. (28)
The amount of oil that qualifies for an “intended use” is trivial though, as you may only have a couple drops in a bottle of gin.
As with many foods and supplements, there are no controlled studies or data sets to conclusively determine whether or not this plant is entirely safe.
Based on lab and animal research, side effects of juniper berry spice and essential oil may include:
- Stomach irritation
- Kidney problems
- Skin irritation when topical
- Low blood sugar
- Low blood pressure
- Fertility interference
- Dangers during breastfeeding
Many of these side effects are theoretical and may not be occurring, however some have a fair amount of research to support them.
Is juniper berry safe during pregnancy?
There are multiple reasons why both the spice and the essential oil are likely dangerous to pregnant women. The first is research suggesting it may be a uterine stimulant. The second is the increased rate of miscarriages seen in animals fed the plant.
The common juniper contains high levels of isocupressic acid. This compound is believed to be responsible for the increase in miscarriages seen in pregnant cows. (29)
It’s one of the plants that has been studied as a potential candidate for development into an oral contraceptive. (30)
In rodent research, 60-70% had anti-implantation activity. That’s where the fertilized egg doesn’t attach to the uterine lining, which normally happens a few days after conception. (31)
On the other hand, research on pregnant goats who were fed redberry juniper (J. pinchottii and J. asheii) did not lose their babies at a higher rate and there were no observable differences in their offspring after birth. (32)
Since the safety of juniper berries in pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding remains unknown, their use should be avoided during those times.
Where to buy
What are juniper berries good for?
Since all medicinal uses remain unproven, juniper berries and their essential oil should not be used for any disease. Yet given their distinct flavor, which is chock-full of antioxidants, they can serve as a sharp flavor booster for meats, sauces, desserts, and herbal teas.
Of course they’re good for gin, but that’s not exactly a superfood!
You can buy dried juniper berry and the ground powder in the spice aisle of some grocery stores. Frontier, Spicely Organics, and The Spice Hunter are the major brands in the US who sell them. Any grocer who carries those brands might have it, though it’s no guarantee. In the UK it’s more popular, so it’s much more likely to be stocked.
Those 3 brands sell them in little glass jars that are only 1.3 oz. A better idea would be to buy in bulk, which is surprisingly affordable. On Amazon, you can get a 1 lb bag of organic berries from Frontier.
For essential oil, most of the major brands make it including Plant Therapy, NOW, Doterra, etc. Out of those three, the only one offering organic juniper berry essential oil is Plant Therapy and it’s available on Amazon.
How to make juniper berry tea
If you buy the whole berries, you can use them to make a bold and savory herbal tea. It’s a simple recipe.
The instructions for how to make the tea, according to the spice company Frontier, are as follows:
- 1-2 tsp of dried berries
- 8 oz. of water
- Put berries and water in small pot.
2. Cover and simmer for 15-30 minutes.
3. Strain and serve immediately.
Whether they help with weight loss or not is unknown, but being that the tea is zero calories, it probably won’t hurt!
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.