Berries are known to be rich in anthocyanins. These compounds give berries their distinctive colors and, more importantly, have several health benefits, such as contributing to the prevention of heart disease, cancer and inflammatory disease. In this study, anthocyanin-rich extracts from 12 colored berries found in northern China were analyzed by high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with diode array detection and electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (HPLC-DAD/ESI-MS). Total polyphenol content (TPC), total flavonoid content (TFC), total anthocyanin content (TAC) and antioxidant capacity (AOC) of the berries were assayed. The contribution of anthocyanins in the berries to their antioxidant capacity and bioactivity was also investigated. The 12 berries analyzed had typical profiles with different anthocyanin compositions, which can be considered as an indicator for differentiating berries. Cyanidin-3-xylosyl-galactoside and cyanidin-3-xylosyl-rutinoside were identified for the first time in Acanthopanax S. and Chinese dwarf cherry respectively. All berry extracts showed potent antioxidant activity, and TPC correlated well with AOC. Blue honeysuckle, blackcurrant and blueberry had higher TAC/TPC ratio, with anthocyanins contributing more to AOC. The higher flavonoid content in yellow raspberry and sea buckthorn might increase their antioxidant activity. In addition, wild raspberry had higher antioxidant activity than cultivated raspberries, but they all had lower anthocyanin content with less contribution to AOC. There is great potential to improve human health through consumption of these colored berries, especially those high in AOC. © 2013 Society of Chemical Industry.