Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an ornamental shrub first introduced to North America in the mid-1800s. This shrub’s silvery foliage, showy flowers, and colorful berries made it popular in landscaping, though it was also planted extensively for a period of time in natural areas to provide erosion control, wind breaks, and wildlife food. The abundance of fruit, which is readily dispersed by birds, is central to the spread of this species. From the East Coast as far west as Nebraska, autumn olive is an aggressive invader of roadsides, pastures, abandoned agricultural land, forest edges, and other disturbed habitats.
Autumn olive is most notable for its high concentration of lycopene. Lycopene is a well-known carotenoid thought to decrease the risk of prostate, lung, and stomach cancers, decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol, and decrease the risk of heart disease. Americans get their lycopene mostly from tomatoes, which contain about 4.6 mg of lycopene per cup. Cooking tomatoes increases the bioavailability of this lycopene, and canned tomato products such as soup and sauce contain even higher amounts - a cup of tomato soup contains about 26 mg.
Although tomatoes contain high levels of lycopene, they simply can’t compete with autumn olives in this regard. 100 grams of raw fruit boast an average of 38 mg of lycopene, and some samples have tested even higher, all the way up to 54 mg! Autumn olives contain other healthy carotenoids too, such as β-carotene, lutein, and phytoene. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, providing 27.8 mg per 100 grams of fresh fruit. Many non-academic articles report that autumn olives contain other vitamins and minerals, but I couldn’t find any sources to back this claim up. It may be conjecture based on the vitamin content of related species.
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