When makers create an elderberry syrup product, they have to decide how it will be stored while waiting to be shipped, picked up, or delivered; where and when they’ll be selling the product (in a retail store, at farmers markets, etc); and the batch size their business requires. This is a highly controversial topic among elderberry entrepreneurs; however, there’s no right or wrong answer, scientifically and statistically speaking, despite many maker marketing claims that one is “better” than the other.

Said another way: to date, there have been no standardized studies comparing hot-filled or refrigerated processes side by side. We know that homemade, artisanally made, and commercially made products are effective but to what extent, either positively or negatively, has not yet been established.

Shelf Stable Pros & Cons

Pros Cons
No refrigeration required Must work with a specialized processing authority
More accessible to retailers who don’t have refrigeration Must meet a minimum pH, temperature, and inversion times
Suitable for larger indoor & outdoor markets & events Accurate record keeping
Can produce larger batches at a time with few storage restrictions Requires specialized lids
Extends the lifetime freshness Requires an acidifier

Refrigerated Product Pros & Cons

Pros Cons
No pH or temperature requirements Must be rapidly cooled
Less record keeping Requires cold storage until delivery, shipment or pick-up
No need for a process authority Limits access to retailers who don’t have refrigeration
Preserves more nutrients Requires coolers or refrigeration at markets & events
Has a limited time in the refrigerator before spoiling

Here are some questions that makers ask themselves while considering a shelf stable vs refrigerated product:

How does my customer feel about either processing method?
Do they care if what you make works for them, either way?
Are they demanding of you to make one over the other?

How will my business either grow or be hindered by either processing method?
What are your business goals? How will you meet those or fall short with either methodology?
What are your family or lifestyle goals require? How will either of these methods impact those goals?

What have you ‘committed to’ that might be hard to back out of now if you move from one process to another? 

Can I make my refrigerated product shelf stable without hot filing it?
Simplified, going shelf stability means extending the life of the product with a process that prevents a food-borne pathogen from forming (thus ‘spoiling it’). So, the short answer is no. Adding lemon juice, malic acid, apple cider vinegar or citric acid might extend the life but that doesn’t necessarily make it fool-proof from a food safety perspective.

Does hot filling make elderberry less effective?
While it’s true that heating foods might not be as nutritionally beneficial as those in their fresh, raw state, we have thousands of pieces of anecdotal evidence from customers of makers who are getting incredible benefits from their products. These shelf-stable makers use a variety of hot filling procedures and have successful small, medium, and large-sized businesses. Some of these elderberry syrup maker products…

  • Have a higher pH and use a high cook temp, longer cook time, and longer inversion time
  • Have a lower pH and use a lower cook temp, longer cook time, and shorter inversion time
  • Have a lower pH and use a higher cook temp, shorter cook time, and longer inversion time
  • Have a lower pH and use a lower cook temp, lower cook time, and longer inversion time.

Hot filling for shelf stability is both an art and a science which is why there is so much variation between makers and their respective process authority letters.

In other words, there have been no scientific studies to suggest that hot filling isn’t having a therapeutic effect on the body and in which processing combination render the recipe useless. Furthermore, we don’t have inisght into proprietary recipes to make a claim that one elderberry entrepreneur’s hot fill process is ‘the best’ or ‘to be desired.’

Does heating honey ‘kill’ its benefits
Some makers believe that heating honey is off-limits as it loses the nutritional benefits of honey. Some elderberry makers use honey simply as a sweetener and market their product as elderberry syrup, not honey syrup; alluding to the health benefits of their product to the antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties of the berries themselves.  Heating honey can be more problematic for those who are adding a larger amount of honey to their recipes (some use upwards of 50%, mirroring their recipes off of wellness blogger websites).  Others simply use a small amount to cut the bite of elderberry down to be more palatable.

The debate is so far, unsubstantiated. Some bee-keepers and experts purport that the microbial activity is ‘dead’ from anywhere from 90-248ºF: quite a large range.

Does heating honey increase 5-HMF exposure?
Some makers are long-time herbalists dedicated to ayurvedic teachers, suggesting that honey is toxic when heated. Modern-day science once believed that 5-HMF chemically changed the sugars in honey to create a carcinogenic effect in the body. More recent studies suggest that HMF has health benefits for the body.  What’s not been included in any of the ‘unhealthy’ studies is the cellular, metabolic, or other health indicators across age groups and other populations.

In other words, we don’t know if 5-HMF is always a blanket problem for all humans, or only problematic in certain individuals. Furthermore,  when (and to whom) HMF might be most beneficial. Here are a few studies:

Glatt H, Schneider H, Liu Y (2005) V79-hCYP2E1-hSULT1A1, a cell line for the sensitive detection of genotoxic effects induced by carbohydrate pyrolysis products and other food-borne chemicals. Mutat Res Genet Toxicol Environ Mutagen 580:41–52

Lee Y-C, Shlyankevich M, Jeong H-K, Douglas JS, Surh Y-J (1995) Bioactivation of 5-hydroxymethyl-2-furaldehyde to an electrophilic and mutagenic allylic sulfuric acid ester. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 209:996–1002

Monien BH, Engst W, Barknowitz G, Seidel A, Glatt H (2012) Mutagenicity of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural in V79 cells expressing human SULT1A1: identification and mass spectrometric quantification of DNA adducts formed. Chem Res Toxicol 25:1484–1492

(Antioxidant) Zhao L et al (2013) In vitro antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural. J Agric Food Chem 61:10604–10611

(Anti-allergic)  Yamada P, Nemoto M, Shigemori H, Yokota S, Isoda H (2011) Isolation of 5-(hydroxymethyl) furfural from lycium chinense and its inhibitory effect on the chemical mediator release by basophilic cells.

(Anti-inflammatory) Kitts DD, Chen X-M, Jing H (2012) Demonstration of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory bioactivities from sugar–amino acid Maillard reaction products. J Agric Food Chem 60:6718–6727

(Anti-hypoxic) Li MM et al (2011) The protective role of 5-HMF against hypoxic injury. Cell Stress Chaperones 16:267–273

(Anti-sickling) Abdulmalik O et al (2005) 5-hydroxymethyl-2-furfural modifies intracellular sickle haemoglobin and inhibits sickling of red blood cells†. Br J Haematol 128:552–561
Planta Med 77:434–440

(Anti-hyperuricemic ) Lin S-M, Wu J-Y, Su C, Ferng S, Lo C-Y, Chiou RY-Y (2012) Identification and mode of action of 5-hydroxymethyl-2-furfural (5-HMF) and 1-methyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-β-carboline-3-carboxylic acid (MTCA) as potent xanthine oxidase inhibitors in vinegars. J Agric Food Chem 60:9856–9862


A note on marketing claims. Many makers claim that they’ve found a way to make their products shelf stable without hot filling. While some are using copackers with commercial equipment that allows for a reduced cook temp and time, at the time of this writing, there are no processing authoritities we’ve contacted who will/have approved a non-hot-filled process, even with a lower pH. Addidtionally, some makers make claims that their product is ‘okay during the shipping process’ but few, if any, have been officially tested by a 3rd party lab to make such a claim. Shelf stability tests can be done but they are require a complex matrix of testing requirements under various conditions which are costly and take a length of time to complete.

This note is subject to change as we meet with more process authorities over time.

Follow along for my updates to this post as the conversations continue.

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