WASHINGTON -- A hardy bush long treated as good for little but curbing soil erosion produces an edible berry that scientists have found is up to 17 times richer than tomatoes in lycopene, a compound widely believed to protect against cancer.
They're known as autumn olives, but they are more like cranberries in taste and size. In parts of Asia, they're eaten as a fruit.
"I was really surprised," said Beverly Clevidence, who runs the Agriculture Department's Phytonutrients Laboratory near Washington. "It's rare to see lycopene in anything that's not tomato-based."
Clevidence analyzed the nutritional content of the berries at the request of Ingrid Fordham, a department horticulturist who begin studying the fruit about eight years ago. They wrote a report on their findings that is to be published next month.
"I love them," said Ingrid Fordham, a department horticulturist who makes jams and jellies out of the berries. "The plant is very common around here, but no one has ever eaten the berries, or at least not commonly."
The bushes, which thrive in poor soil, are planted along roads and streams for erosion control and sometimes grown as a food source for wildlife. Many people, however, consider the plant a pest. For that reason, she doubts the autumn olive would ever catch on as a food crop.
Lycopene is one of a group of chemicals, called antioxidants, that attack roaming oxygen molecules, known as free radicals, that are suspected of triggering cancer.