What are Swedish lingonberries

Contents

If you’re an American, you might encounter this superfood in only one form… Ikea lingonberry jam!

Swedish furniture mart aside, finding where to buy lingonberry – whether it’s the jam, preserves, sauce, juice, or fresh fruit – is a challenge. Walmart and Costco don’t sell them. Not even Whole Foods is a guarantee.

The sugar-laden jams and jarred preserves are something you might encounter at a physical grocery store… maybe. Fresh and frozen, no so much.

If you live in the Nordic countries, you’ll be able to buy them at your local supermarket. They’re far more common than cranberries, which are hard to come by there.

How Swedes eat lingonberries is year-round and they’re used in all sorts of recipes.

Köttbullar (pronouced ‘shirt-bullar’) is the classic Swedish meatball meal, served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam. Chicken and salmon will often get a side of the jam, too. For breakfast, it’s spread on toast and flapjacks. The latter uses lingonberry butter, which is basically the jam mixed with melted butter. For dessert, the Norwegian trollkrem (mousse) is popular among all the Nordic countries.

Back here in the United States, if you’re willing to spend the money, you can buy frozen wild lingonberries from Northwest Wild Foods on Amazon. Otherwise, you may have to buy a plane ticket to try them!

Where do they grow?

The lingonberry plant (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) is native to the boreal forests of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Russia, and the rest of the Arctic tundra climate throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Reaching only 18″ in height, this small evergreen shrub produces bright round red berries which look similar to cranberries, but they’re much smaller – a diameter of just ¼ to ½ inch (6 to 13 mm).

The United States is included in the lingonberry’s native growing range. Aside from Alaska, it can be found in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. However, they’re a very rare sighting in the continental states, where they are classified as an endangered species. (1)

Because wild lingonberries thrive throughout the forests of Sweden, their popularity there compares to that of raspberries and strawberries in the US.

What they’re called varies by region. Lingonberry and cowberry are the two most common names. Others include mountain cranberry, partridgeberry (in Newfoundland), redberry (in Quebec), foxberry, quailberry, red whortleberry, and over a dozen other synonyms which all refer to the same thing.

What do lingonberries taste like?

The taste of fresh or raw lingonberry is sour or tart, with only a hint of sweetness.

Lingonberries don’t have seeds that are large and noticeable, which makes for a more consistent texture. When raw, their skin is crisp and their flesh is juicy.

Because they have a tart flavor, the most popular way to eat them is in the form of lingonberry jam. The added sugar may not be healthy, but it does make them universally palatable.

“Sylt Lingon” is the name for Ikea lingonberry preserves. Sylt is the Swedish word for jam.

Most of the antioxidants in this fruit hold up surprisingly well with heat processing, so the jam remains a rich source.

However, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s something you should eat in excess.

It may be healthier than grape, raspberry, and strawberry jam/jelly due to the higher antioxidant content, but it’s still loaded with added sugar. At least typically.

Sugar is number two on Ikea’s ingredients list. There’s 6g (1.5 teaspoons) per 1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons) serving. In other words, it’s 50% sugar.

Lingonberries vs. cranberries

While comparable in taste and color, their differences are many.

The lingonberry is similar to cranberry in taste and color, but the two are related only loosely in the botanical sense. Both are in the Vaccinium plant genus, but cranberries fall within the Oxycoccus subgenus.

Unlike the lingonberry plant which is a small shrub, the cranberry plant is better described as a low creeping vine. It’s even shorter; 2-8 inches tall (5-20 cm). It grows horizontally, stretching up to 7 feet (2 meters).

Both plants like cold weather but the cranberry likes it a bit warmer. The US, Canada, and Chili are the top producing countries in the world for cranberries. Romania and the Baltic States Belarus and Latvia grow some, however their yield is less than 2% of the combined US + Canadian crop size. (2)

What can I substitute for lingonberries?

If you have a recipe that calls for lingonberry jam or preserves, you can use cranberry sauce. Both will have a comparable tart taste that has been moderated, due to the added sugar. Both have the same aesthetics of being bright red.

A good substitute for fresh lingonberries will be fresh or frozen cranberries. Both will have a potent tartness, as neither will be sweetened.

Nutrition facts

Fresh Lingonberry Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 3.5 oz (100 g)
Calories53
% Daily Value*% Daily Value
Total Fat 1.2 g2%Thiamine (B1)3%
Saturated Fat 0 g0%Riboflavin (B2)2%
Trans Fat 0 g0%Niacin (B3)3%
Sodium 2 mg0%Vitamin B61%
Total Carbohydrate 11.5 g4%Vitamin C18%
Fiber 3.7g15%Vitamin E8%
Sugar 3 gVitamin K10%
Protein 0.8 gCalcium2%
Iron2%
Magnesium2%
Phosphorus2%
Potassium3%
*Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet
Source: Department of Nutrition, National Food Institute of Denmark

Health benefits of lingonberries

While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in an occasional sweet treat – such as Ikea’s jam – the nutritional and potential medical advantages are far more likely to come from the less refined forms; fresh, dried, and freeze-dried powder.

The following benefits remain unproven because there is only preliminary research to date. Here’s a look at what scientists have discovered about this little red superberry so far.

1. More antioxidants than blueberries and cranberries

According to ORAC values testing, here’s how it scores when compared to other common berries:

  • strawberries = 4,302
  • blueberries = 4,669
  • red raspberries = 5,905
  • wild blueberries = 9,621
  • cranberries = 9,090
  • elderberries = 14,697
  • black raspberries 19,220
  • lingonberries = 20,300

The above tests used the raw and fresh form for each berry.

Lingonberries have over twice the antioxidant power of cranberries and four-fold more than blueberries!

As revealed in a 2018 issue of Food Chemistry, there are 51 newly identified phenolic compounds that have been found in the extracts of lingonberry fruit, leaves, and stems. (3)

2. Good for diabetics and blood sugar

The popular Swedish brand, Felix wild lingonberry jam, has the following ingredients list: lingonberries (48%), sugar, water and fruit pectin. That equates to 9g of sugar for a 1 Tbsp serving.

To be clear, jams like that are not healthy for diabetics.

What is healthy will be the fresh berries and unsweetened lingonberry powder.

A 3.5 oz (100g) serving of fresh lingon only have 3g of sugar content, which is significantly lower than blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries.

In addition, there might be a blood sugar lowering effect. Early data suggests it may even better for you than mulberry leaf.

A handful of studies have suggested this, including one out of the University of Eastern Finland. It was registered with ClinicalTrials.gov. The results were published in the prestigious peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (4) (5)

Healthy (non-diabetic) women consumed a meal with an addition of either lingonberry, black currants, or sugar of an equal amount.

“Blackcurrants and lingonberries, as either whole berries or nectars, optimize the postprandial metabolic responses to sucrose.”

So the blood sugar spike was reduced thanks to the fruit…

“Berries prevented the sucrose-induced late postprandial hypoglycemic response and the compensatory free fatty acid rebound.”

In Singapore, they observed the polyphenols reducing the glycemic spike when used with cooked white rice. (6)

3. Antibacterial and antifungal activity

In 2017, The University of Agriculture in Poland tested several plants which historically have been used for alleged medicinal benefits:

  • leaves and flowers of black elder (S. nigra L.)
  • dogwood (Cornus mas L.)
  • black mulberry (Morus nigra L.)
  • lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea L.)
  • flowers of hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha  L.)
  • black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)
  • fruits and leaves of quince (Cydonia oblonga Mill.)

They tested each against 8 strains of bacteria and 3 fungi that cause illnesses in humans, such as Escherichi coli, Aspergillus niger, and Bacillus subtilis infections. (7)

The results?

“The highest antimicrobial activity against the tested strains was demonstrated by black elder (Sambucus nigra L.), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.) and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea L.) extracts.”

4. Potential remedy for urinary tract infections

For generations, cranberries have been hailed as a natural remedy for treating and preventing urinary tract infections. Since cranberries and lingonberries are both in the same plant genus, might they share this potential benefit?

The reason cranberries help is because their type-A proanthocyanidins (PAC) have been found to inhibit E. coli growth on urothelium cells (which line the urinary tract) in a dose-dependent manner. Being that it’s a natural remedy, it does not qualify as an “official” recognized medical treatment, but this inhibitory effect has been seen in both lab research and human studies. (8)

In addition to the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), these PAC compounds are also in the  European cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus) and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). However their patterns of PACs are different, so you can’t necessarily extrapolate this benefit from one species to another. Only recently have scientists put the lingonberry to the test.

“We analysed two popular European vitis-idaea products, a mother juice and a proprietary extract. Both preparations may be appropriate to confirm the Vaccinium urinary tract infection-preventive effect beyond doubt.”

That was from research out of a university in Israel, which reported results suggesting it too can help. (9)

When scientists in Poland tested this berry along with several other plants against E. coli biofilm formation, they reported (10):

“The extracts of H. glabra [green carpet/smooth rupturewort] and V. vitis-idaea [lingonberries] showed the highest growth-inhibitory effects (p < 0.05).”

Only one human clinical trial has been done on using lingonberry for UTI. Twenty women drank 100 mL (3.5 oz) of a mixed cranberry-lingonberry juice daily for two weeks. Since both berries were used, it’s not useful for gauging their efficacy on a stand-alone basis. (11)

5. Antiviral potential seen in research

When it comes to purported medicinal plants that might help with colds and flu symptoms, the most touted is probably black elderberry syrup (e.g. Sambucol). There have been a handful of clinical trials using it, such as this one that was double-blinded and placebo-controlled…

In this study done during the flu season in Norway, the participants taking the elderberry syrup 4x daily experienced symptom relief earlier when compared to those on placebo. (12)

Scientists believe this may be happening because the berry has been found to boost the release of cytokines, which are chemical messengers that tell cells to do things – like fight an infection.

One piece of research out of Israel reported inflammatory cytokines (IL-1 beta, TNF-alpha, IL-6, IL-8) being boosted 2-45 fold when people took the elderberry extract. (13)

Similar human trials on lingonberry for colds and flu haven’t been conducted, but perhaps they should be, based on some preliminary in vitro (lab) research being published.

Several wild berries growing in Bulgaria were tested for antiviral activity:

  • strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.)
  • raspberry (Rubus idaeus L.)
  • bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillis L.)
  • lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea L.)

These were freeze-dried and then ground into a stable powder. Next, the powder was soaked in a methanol solution to create an extract. That was then tested on several viruses in the lab including:

  • influenza virus A/H3N2
  • poliovirus type 1 (PV-1)
  • coxsackievirus B1 (CV-B1)
  • syncytial virus A2 (HRSV-A2)

All the berries demonstrated noteworthy antiviral activity against some or all of the virus cultures. Regarding the flu virus, this was said (14):

“Anthocyanin fractions of all wild berries strongly inhibit the replication of influenza virus A/H3N2. Given the obtained results it is concluded that wild berry species are a valuable resource of antiviral substances and the present study should serve as a basis for further detailed research on the matter.”

6. Brain health and cognitive function

Lund University in Sweden conducted a study using 40 older adults (50-70 years old). It was registered with the US government’s ClinicalTrials.gov. (15)

During the 5 week trial, when compared to a placebo beverage, those consuming a berry-based beverage (which including lingon) experienced an improvement in LDL cholesterol, blood sugar, and other cardiomatabolic risk factors for age-related diseases. When it came to mental health, it was said:

“Subjects performed better in the working memory test after the berry beverage compared to after the control beverage (P<0.05).”

They believe this was due to the polyphenols but since this was a multi-ingredient fruit drink, you can’t really claim it’s a lingonberry benefit being demonstrated. (16)

That said, there is other research suggesting it specifically for this fruit.

In a Chinese study, lingonberries improved the cognitive function and memory of mice who suffered damage from induced chronic stress. Hmmm… anti-stress benefits sound like something a lot of us could use, right?! (17)

In a Canadian study out of Nova Scotia, they tested the polyphenols of partridgeberry (their name for it) on cultured rat hippocampal neuron cells in the lab. It was found to reduce beta-amyloid plaque deposits by 7-15 fold. That plaque happens to be hallmark sign that correlates with Alzheimer’s disease in humans. (18)

“These findings suggest that partridgeberry polyphenols, especially flavan-3-ol- and flavonol-rich fractions, could be of importance in prevention and/or treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Another Nova Scotian study reported that these polyphenols reduced the effects of injury to rat cortical neurons. (19)

“…suppressed the inflammatory biomarkers in primary neurons, and modulated the activity of HIF-1a and proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARγ) following hypoxic injury.”

7. May help protect the heart

The University of Manitoba, in collaboration with a research hospital in Winnipeg, did a study using cultured human heart cells.

They inflicted injury on them using hydrogen peroxide. For the cells pre-treated with lingonberry, as well as the berry’s main antioxidants (cyanidin-3-galactoside, cyanidin-3-glucoside, and cyanidin-3-arabinoside) there was a protective effect seen…

The scientists concluded (20):

“Lingonberry anthocyanins protected cardiac cells from oxidative-stress-induced apoptosis and may have cardioprotective effects as a dietary modification.”

8. Reduces kidney damage in rodent research

Another study out of the same university and research hospital tested lingonberry juice on rats.

The rats were inflicted with ischemia-reperfusion (IR)-induced acute kidney injury.

In plain English, that means their kidneys were deprived of oxygen for a period of time and then re-supplied. This causes extreme inflammation and oxidative damage and can occur anywhere in the body, including the brain during traumatic brain injury (TBI).

For the rats given 1 mL of lingonberry juice per day during the 3 weeks leading up to the injury, their kidneys fared much better:

“…kidney function was protected and attenuation of inflammatory response and JNK signalling was reflected in the reduction of the measured biomarkers… This study shows, for the first time, that daily supplementation with lingonberry juice may protect against loss of kidney function induced by ischemia-reperfusion injury by modulating JNK signalling and inhibiting the subsequent inflammatory response.”

This is something different than long term kidney failure and decline in function. However it does suggest there might be some protective benefits during blunt trauma and body crushing situations, like car accidents and sports injuries, where the kidneys and other organs may sustain ischemia-reperfusion (IR) injuries. (21)

IR injuries can also happen with muscles. For example, one man at Superfoodly nearly had compartment syndrome in his left leg after having it crushed below the knee in fallen concrete. The inflammatory response in this type of injury is a major cause of leg amputations.

Coincidentally, he eats tons of berries daily, including dried and frozen lingon on occasion. Did his diet help at all? That’s impossible to know, but whatever the case, he had a successful recovery that didn’t require surgery.

9. Combats Candida yeast in lab tests

As mentioned in benefit #3, extracts of the berry have demonstrated anti-fungal activity against multiple types.

One of the most problematic fungal infections in human health is Candida yeast. Not only does it cause vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush, but it can also be the bane of long term gastrointestinal problems, particularly in women.

In 2017, the University of Helsinki tested fermented lingonberry juice specifically against this type of fungi. They didn’t test the more common Candida albicans species, as it was Candida glabrata which was used.

They found that the juice “exerts an intracellular stress response in Candida glabrata” and this likely impairs the yeasts ability to express certain proteins and maintain cell wall integrity. In other words, it was anti-fungal against Candida glabrata in the lab. (22)

10. Weight loss through gut flora influence

While not yet tested in humans, numerous animal studies have found that lingonberry supplements have helped suppress obesity-related side effects such as:

  • body fat percentage
  • low grade inflammation
  • bad cholesterol (LDL)
  • fasting blood glucose levels

Scientists have suspected this benefit might be due to the berry altering the gut microbiota (your natural probiotics). That hypothesis was confirmed in a recent study where mice were fed high-fat diets with and without lingonberries for 11 weeks.

The mice were split into 3 groups and fed identical diets, in terms of total calories and amounts for each nutrient category…

Control GroupLingon 1 GroupLingon 2 Group
Calculated energy (kcal)
Protein812.0812.0812.0
Carbohydrate1422.41422.41422.4
Starch731.2731.2723.2
Sucrose347.2347.2347.2
Fructose172.0172.0172.0
Glucose172.0172.0180.0
Fat1822.51822.51822.5
Total kcals4,0574,0574,057
Calculated energy (kcal%)
Protein202020
Carbohydrate353535
Fat454545

As you see, each group was getting the same amount of calories, protein, carbs, sugars, fat, and so forth. The difference was that “Lingon 1” and “Lingon 2” each had 20% of those nutrients coming in the form of freeze-dried lingonberries (the 1 and 2 corresponded to different berry sources/suppliers).

All of the mice should have had the same readings for things like body weight and body fat, but they didn’t…

Next, the mice were sacrificed and their gut flora were measured using sophisticated equipment (16S rRNA sequencing). There were profound differences between those eating the berries and those who weren’t. Their conclusion stated (23):

“Regardless of the berry batch and effect on body weight, lingonberries promote modifications of the gut microbiota and protects against low-grade inflammation, including reduced inflammation in liver and adipose tissue. Specifically, lingonberries decrease the Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio and the relative abundance of Akkermansia independently of changes in body weight.”

11. May reduce atherosclerosis risk

In another Swedish study similar to the one about weight loss, it was found that when the diet of mice was supplemented with lingonberry, triglyceride levels and amount of atherosclerotic plaques decreased significantly, even though the basic nutrition facts of the diets were comparable among the different diet groups.

“Hepatic expression of the bile acid synthesis gene Cyp7a1 was significantly upregulated in the lingonberry group. Lingonberries increased the cecal relative abundance of bacterial genera Bacteroides, Parabacteroides and Clostridium.”

In plain English, liver performance was boosted and modifications of the gut flora contributed to lower triglycerides and plaque in their arteries. (24)

12. Macular degeneration and eye health support

Since they are rich in anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, resveratrol, and arbutin, it’s no surprise that scientists theorize they may help protect the eyes, particularly from oxidative stress and environmental dangers like UV light.

Using cultured eye cells (photoreceptor cells) from mice, Japanese scientists tested what happened with them when exposed to blue LED light. This is a major health concern now because of our nearly non-stop usage of mobile phones and computer screens during waking hours. This blue light is linked to various eye diseases.

When tiny amounts of bilberry and lingonberry extracts were provided to these living cells, they saw a reduction in the caspase-3/7 activation caused by blue LED light exposure. That damaging process, along with the reactive oxidative species (ROS) generated by the light, were significantly reduced.

They proposed these fruits might be useful for reducing progression of age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa (rod cone dystrophy). Of course, further research using humans is needed. (25)

Side effects

Lingonberries are one of the safest foods you can eat.

Even when non-organic, you can take comfort in the fact that many sources are wild-grown and naturally pesticide-free.

Because of their low sugar content, the berries are even acceptable for type 1 and type 2 diabetics. There are no known drug interactions like there are for grapefruit and pomelo. People with food allergies can take comfort in the fact that the first patient case study documenting a lingonberry allergy wasn’t published until 2004. That tells you how rare an allergic reaction is. (26) (27)

Eating lingonberries while pregnant and breastfeeding have not been clinical studied, however there is no evidence from other research to suggest it’s dangerous during those times. Supplements and teas made from lingonberry leaves might pose a danger to babies and should be avoided by expectant mothers and those who are lactating.

This is one of the few foods where there are no common side effects or adverse reactions to report.

Where to buy

Since there’s a limited amount of scientific and clinical data on this fruit, please remember we are not advocating or recommending it a prevention or treatment for any disease. Its intended use is as a delicious food with a healthy profile of nutrients.

Lingonberry jam will be the easiest form to find for sale. In the United States, the following chains have been known to carry it:

  • Ikea
  • Cost Plus World Market
  • Whole Foods
  • Bed, Bath & Beyond
  • Sprouts Farmers Market

With the exception of Ikea, not every location of each store will carry it. For example, when it comes to Bed, Bath & Beyond, we have only encountered Felix jam at what is probably their largest location in Los Angeles (a massive 2-story complex on Olympic Blvd).

Surprised to see this sold at Bed, Bath & Beyond!

While the jam may be an OK treat to have on occasion, the healthiest way to consume this fruit is unsweetened, with minimal processing.

Outside of Sweden, Norway and the neighboring countries, you are unlikely to find fresh but the frozen are available.

In the United Kingdom, ScandiKitchen sells frozen lingonberries. You can pick them up at their London store or have them mailed to you.

Since they grow wild in parts of Canada, you may come across them for sale at a farmer’s market.

In the United States, we are aware of only one supplier…

Sealed in large airtight bags and packed with dry ice in a Styrofoam mailer, these are not cheap to obtain, but they’re worth trying at least once. Travel aside, it’s may be the only opportunity you ever have to try them.

Here at Superfoodly, we have bought them a couple times. The photo you see above is what they look like after thawing in the fridge overnight. A healthy and delicious booster for your breakfast! You too can order the frozen berries through Amazon.

For an economical way to eat this superfood, consider buying freeze-dried lingonberry powder.

Based on ORAC values testing, it clocks in as having as much antioxidant activity as acai powder (100,393 and 102,700, respectively). Unlike acai, you have dozens of unique polyphenols not found in other plants.

Grown in Finland, we like the brand NordicNordic. Over 7,000 handpicked berries without additives end up in each canister. You can buy the powder on Amazon.


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.