Feature Archive

Bilberry Bombs

Herb's elusive benefits

WebMD Feature

Oct. 16, 2000 -- Night after night during World War II, the bomber crews of Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) climbed into their planes for perilous missions over Germany. The pilots had trouble seeing in the darkness, though, until one man's elderly relative whipped up a batch of bilberry jam. Once the heroic lads began tucking into the preserves before missions, they hit their targets with devastating accuracy.

Or so goes the story, repeated on countless web sites that offer bilberry supplements for sale. "RAF pilots who survived and continued consuming the jam or other Bilberry products had . . . perfect vision both near and far as well as a complete absence of eye disorders throughout their lives," writes Robert Biddleman on Herb.com.

Largely on the strength of that tale, bilberry -- a European cousin of the blueberry -- has become one of the 10 most popular herbs in the United States. According to The Hartman Group, a market research firm, bilbery's sales soared to $97 million in 1999, tripling in just two years.

Fascinated, WebMD set out to learn more. What we found, however, gave us little reason to increase our bilberry intake. Rather it tended to illustrate the power of a heartwarming tall tale over the cold facts of scientific research.

The Berry Hunt

We began our inquiry by trying to contact Biddleman, a Sonoma County, Calif., herbalist. Unfortunately, he was away on an herb picking expedition in Nepal. His colleague at Herb.com, Rebecca Starm, MD, maintained that he had contacted the pilots who continued to use bilberry after the war and had confirmed their extraordinary medical histories with their doctors and families. But she could offer no documentation.