What Are Cherries Good For? Bizarre Benefits You Didn’t Know
[toc]One person here at Superfoodly takes a pilgrimage every summer to the cherry capital of the world, Traverse City, Michigan. That area supplies over 40% of the nation’s tart cherry crop.
Admittedly, he’s going more for the sand dunes and saskatoons rather than this pitted fruit, though he’s extremely knowledgeable on them and appreciates their advantages for health that most people are unaware of.
While not all of the following are proven, here’s a look at the cherry health benefits being studied, offering a glimpse as to just how much potential they might have.
10 benefits of cherries
1. Natural sleep aid
Even though they’re not native, Montmorency tart cherries (Prunus cerasus) are the species that Michigan is famous for. Both here and abroad, in the United Kingdom and Spain, this type has been clinically studied for sleep-enhancing qualities.
How many tart cherries for sleep?
Research suggests the equivalent of around 100 per day though not in the dried form, as virtually all for sale have added sweeteners. The extra sugar will only amplify your blood sugar spike, making sleep more difficult during the 2-3 hours after eating. A better solution may be tart cherry juice concentrate that has less sugar.
At least that’s based on the findings of the first pilot study for sleep. They used a proprietary juice blend made by CherryPharm. It was conducted in 2010 by University of Rochester’s Department of Psychiatry.
15 seniors with insomnia were given an 8 oz. glass in the morning followed by another 1-2 hours before bedtime. There was also a placebo group given black cherry Kool-Aid. “Modest beneficial effects” were seen. (1)
A couple years later, UK scientists did a double-blind and placebo-controlled trial using the regular non-proprietary juice concentrate.
Volunteers consumed about one-third the amount by weight, yet it was the same equivalent dosage of 90-100 cherries. That was achieved with just a 30 mL dosage, which equals 2 tablespoons.
When that amount was used 30 minutes after waking in the morning, with another dose 30 minutes before bed, the results were much more impressive.
It boosted melatonin production big time when compared to placebo…
This was measured using urine levels of 6-sulphatoxymelatonin, which is a metabolite left over after melatonin is broken down by the body.
They suspected that this boost in “the sleep hormone” is why there was a statistically significant improvement in total sleep time; an extra 23 minutes of sleep, which is 5% more.
Other measures of circadian rhythm and health, such as sleep quality and how quickly they fell asleep, also improved in the group getting the juice. (2)
2. Weight loss
While not yet studied in humans, in a rat study done at the University of Michigan, the following anti-obesity effects were observed when they were placed on a high-fat diet:
Less abdominal fat
Lower body fat percentage
Lower levels of fat in the blood (hyperlipidemia)
Lower inflammatory responses
That’s what happened in the group of animals who had 1% of their diet in the form of whole tart cherry powder. The other group was consuming the same number of calories and essential nutrients, which hints it was the fruit powder that made the difference. (22)
Admittedly the benefits of tart cherry juice and weight loss are overhyped. There isn’t yet human clinical data on whether it helps you lose weight or reduce belly fat.
That being said, the animal studies and the beneficial changes seen in genetic expression linked to fat metabolism suggests there very well might be something to it.
3. High amounts of antioxidants
Cherries are not a berry but perhaps if they were, they would get more respect as a superfood. Everyone seems to think blueberries and other berries are the best source of antioxidants. In reality, many foods match and exceed their content.
The antioxidant activity of cherries measures at 3,747 on the ORAC scale. That’s 74% as much as red raspberries (5,065), 80% that of blueberries (4,669), and 87% for strawberries (4,302). While its total content may not beat these North American species, how much antioxidants cherries have is higher than goji berries from China, which are 12% lower (3,290).
That is for the sweet variety – Prunus avium – which is the kind most commonly consumed raw and fresh.
The sour or tart cherries (Prunus cerasus) have demonstrated ORAC values up to 145.4% higher than sweet cherries. That was based on a Michigan State University study using six different samples grown in Michigan. (3)
Whether you’re talking about the Montmorency tart or the sweet variety, both have high amounts of anthocyanins, which is a category of plant polyphenols responsible for producing the reds, blues, and purples in fruits.
In the tart cherry, research suggests that the most potent antioxidant is one that’s not easy to say; 7-dimethoxy-5,8,4′-trihydroxyflavone. After that, it’s the content of quercetin, genistein, chlorogenic acid, and naringenin. (4)
Even though the anthocyanins and other types degrade during heat and processing, cherry juice concentrate remains a rich source of antioxidants.
4. Memory and cognition support
Not proven, but at least this has been observed in one human clinical study that was published in 2017.
A total of 49 older men and women (age 70+) with mild to moderate dementia were randomized to receive either 200 mL/day (about 7 ounces) of cherry juice or a placebo version of apple juice.
The juice was made using sweet Bing cherries, not the tart Montmorency which is what most juice concentrates are made from.
They drank it daily for 12 weeks and cognitive performance improved in nearly all of the tests.
The scientists believe this was due to the anthocyanin content (red pigments) in the sweet cherry juice, which measured as being 206 times higher than what the placebo apple juice version has. (5)
The same scientists did a pilot cross-over study using 6 young and 7 old adults with a higher dosage of 300 mL (about 10 oz). This was only given one time and 6 hours after, tests were given. Based on the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT), they did not see acute cognitive benefits – meaning no mental performance boost. Perhaps that’s because longer-term usage is needed to see results? (6)
In rats, supplementation has been found to improve working memory and inflammation of the hippocampus part of the brain. (7)
Obviously it’s far too preliminary to know if this fruit might help Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or be a general nootropic. Though other research has suggested that eating more plant-based foods correlates with a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s, such as what has been seen with the Mediterranean diet. (8)
5. May lower blood pressure
As with the neurocognitive effects, this is a topic which has only been studied in recent years and therefore remains very preliminary, yet promising.
As published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a placebo-controlled and blinded study used 15 men with early hypertension, defined as systolic blood pressure at 130+ and 80+ for diastolic.
After taking a single dose of 60 mL of Montmorency tart cherry juice concentrate, which is 4 tablespoons, the men experienced lower blood pressure during the 3 hours which followed. On average, minus 7 points in their systolic number.
While that not may not sound like a huge improvement, the researchers point out how a meta-analysis of 37,000 people found that just a 5 to 6 point lowering of systolic blood pressure over a 5-year period was associated with a 38% lower stroke risk and 23% lower risk for coronary artery disease. That study was in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. (9)
Going back to the cherry study, it wasn’t the anthocyanin content but rather the circulating protocatechuic and vanillic acid at the 1 and 2 hour marks which were believed to be responsible. They said that because the peak improvement was seen when those two compounds were at their highest levels in the blood.
This study was conducted by a UK university but it was registered with the US government at ClinicalTrials.gov. (10)
What’s interesting is that in the 12-week cognition and dementia study, there was also a “significant reduction in systolic (p = 0.038) blood pressure and a trend for diastolic (p = 0.160) blood pressure reduction was evident in the intervention group.” In the second study involving just a single dose, they also saw similar:
“Montmorency tart cherry concentrate [MC] consumption significantly lowered systolic blood pressure (P=0.05) over a period of 3 h, with peak reductions of 6±2 mmHg at 1 h after MC consumption relative to the placebo.”
6. May reduce risk of stroke
If it lowers systolic blood pressure, that’s good for your risk of stroke, but there might be another way that cherries help.
Peroxisome proliferator activating receptors (PPARs) are hard to say but easy to understand.
PPARs are found throughout your body and when they are activated, they have beneficial effects on your metabolism of fat and glucose.
One of those involves atherosclerosis, which is the hardening of your arteries due to the buildup of plaque. It’s estimated that atherosclerosis in the brain is the cause of up to 10% of ischemic strokes. (11)
Drugs to activate PPARs are being pursued for the prevention of strokes. (12)
While not yet studied in humans, there has been animal research which has found that when freeze-dried whole tart cherries were 1% of their diet, after 90 days they had a major boost in PPAR expression.
The 4 bars you see above are for 2 types of PPARs and 2 enzymes involved with the metabolism of fat (ACO and FAS). The vertical bar shows the amount of increase or decrease when compared to the group fed a regular diet.
All of those were healthy changes. For the bar on the right which shows a decrease, that’s actually a great thing because it represents accumulation of fat in the liver. You’ve probably heard of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and that’s what causes it. (13)
7. Good for diabetes
Are cherries diabetic friendly?
A 120g (4.2 oz) serving of pitted raw dark cherries has a glycemic index of 63. That makes Bing and other sweet varieties a moderate glycemic food that’s safe to eat, though with caution and in small amounts. Fresh sour or tart cherries are better for type 1 and 2 diabetics, since the GI is 22 for same portion. (17) (18)
And guess what? It might be helpful in other ways too!
While there’s no human research yet to back this up, in diabetic mice it was found that both the pulp and seed extracts of tart cherry had a blood sugar lowering effect and they “showed significant pancreatic cell regeneration” when compared to the untreated group. (19)
8. Boosts bodybuilding recovery
The kinesiology department at Texas A&M University put out human clinical trial where they measured the effects of tart cherry powder on athletic men. 12 were given the powder in capsule form and 11 got a placebo.
They took these before, during, and after bodybuilding with barbell back squats. They were lifting a lot of weight, that was “at least” 150% of their body weight.
Here’s how their pain measured after this rigorous regimen:
Next is how tart cherry powder compared to placebo for creatinine and billirubin levels in the blood. Lower suggests better recovery:
Lastly, here are ALT (alanine aminotransferase) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) which are markers of physiological stress and muscle damage:
With results like that, it’s no surprise that their conclusion stated (20):
“The current study demonstrated that consumption of a Montmorency powdered tart cherry supplement 7-d before, the day of, and 2-d after completing a single bout of high volume, high-intensity resistance exercise, appears to be an effective dietary supplement in reducing muscle soreness.”
In another study they did using endurance-trained runners, a group using the same 480 mg dosage of tart cherry supplements had a 13% faster half-marathon when compared to those using the placebo. (21)
9. Gout-friendly food
In a Boston University study of 633 people with gout, it was found that when cherries or cherry extract was consumed in the prior 2 days, there was 35% lower risk of a gout attack.
When it was consumed along with a medication that reduces uric acid production (allopurinol) there was a 75% lower chance of an attack.
This study is particularly interesting given the fact that they were looking at cherry consumption in general, regardless of whether it was sweet vs. sour, fresh vs. juice, etc. This lends credence to the theory that the fruit might be helpful even if it’s not in a special form.
Aside from the anthocyanins which combat inflammation, the researchers point out that there are multiple other pieces of research which have suggested that cherries lower uric acid levels and that might be reducing the gout attack risk. (14) (15) (16)
10. Osteoarthritis pain relief
An estimated 27 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis and while it can affect any joint, the cartilage loss in the knee is one of the most common.
Philadelphia’s VA Medical Center and the University of Pennsylvania did a double-blind study using 58 patients with mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee. They were split into two groups and given either two 8 oz. bottles of tart cherry juice or a placebo to drink daily. This treatment last 6 weeks.
For those who got the real thing, they experienced a significant decrease in WOMAC scores (Western Ontario McMaster Osteoarthritis Index). There was also had a reduction in hsCRP (high sensitivity C-reactive protein).
The black bars are for those who had more than a 10% decrease in C-reactive protein. The white are those who had less than that.
As you see, those who had a lowering of C-reactive protein experienced improvement in pain, stiffness, function, and WOMAC scores. (23)
Even though osteoarthritis is quite different than rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis when it comes to cause, they all share the side effect of joint inflammation. So even though the other two haven’t been studied, it’s at least feasible they might benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of cherry.
The most likely adverse reaction from eating cherries or drinking a juice concentrate will be elevated blood sugar. This is considered normal and not dangerous, except if you have diabetes.
Since Bing and sweet cherries have more sugar, they are more likely to trigger the side effect of high blood glucose.
Tart cherry pills, powder, and supplements often have lower sugar content and therefore, tend to be safer for diabetics when used according to the dosing instructions.
Can you be allergic to cherries?
Yes, but fortunately it is a relatively rare allergen. The Pru av 3, a lipid transfer protein, is responsible for most reactions involving the lips, mouth, and throat.
Pru av 1 and 4 also have IgE binding capacity and can trigger attacks. These will be present in Bing sweet cherries, Montmorency and Balaton tart cherries, and other varieties. (24) (25) (26) (27)
Around 50% of people with allergies to peaches have a reaction to cherries, which makes sense since both are members of the Prunus plant genus, as are nectarines. The subgenus Amygdalus includes almonds. If you have known food allergies to any of these, eat with caution and consult a doctor beforehand. (28)
The basic nutrition facts tell us this food is rich in certain vitamins and minerals, has high fiber content, and offers slower-digesting sugars (carbs) which are better for you, especially if you’re diabetic and are eating the unsweetened tart.
While not conclusively proven, health benefits relating to sleep, blood pressure, brain, weight loss, and more may be icing on the cake.
Considering the nutritional advantages and lack of side effects, this is a superfood that doesn’t get the respect it deserves!
The most important thing…
…is to buy dried cherries with no sugar added.
Since they’re grown in northern states, the season is short so you can’t buy them fresh year ‘round. The dried are perfectly healthy for you to eat, with the exception that almost all of them add lots of sugar and oil.
Sugar is cheap and this fruit is expensive.
By drowning them in sugar water and then drying, they plump up bigger and weigh more. This increases their profit, but decreases your health!
Trader Joe’s dried pitted Montmorency have 24 grams per 1/3 cup serving.
Added sugar really is not necessary. Even though they’re called tart or sour cherries, they taste great on their own as they already have plenty of natural sweetness, though it’s around 40% lower than the sweetened versions for sale.
In their natural state, a 1/3 cup serving of dried unsweetened tart cherries will have 17 grams of combined glucose and fructose (1.1 to 1.0 ratio). That may sound like a lot but it’s only about 15% more sugar content than blueberries. The reason the number seems high is because 1/3 cup dried is the equivalent of eating 1 cup fresh. (29) (30)
As we already highlighted in benefit #7, the glycemic index of unsweetened fresh and raw Montmorency is quite low – just 22 for a serving of 120g (4.2 oz).
The dried version hasn’t been measured, They should comparable if you are eating an equivalent number of fruits, however that equivalent number will weigh much less since the water content is mostly gone.
Believe it or not, we have yet to find dried unsweetened tart cherries for sale at a physical grocery store. Likewise for the warehouse stores Costco and Sam’s Club. We have not even seen them at places like Whole Foods, Sprouts, or other health-focused retailers.
Another anomaly is that even when buying online, organic dried cherries with no sugar and no oil don’t seem to exist! You can find them with 2 of those 3 traits, but not all 3.
If USDA certified organic is a must-have, then try Omena Organics. They’re labeled as “no sugar added” however they are sweetened with organic apple juice concentrate. And there’s sunflower oil.
The oil is added to stop them from sticking together, though it really is not needed.
Eden Organics sells something similar to Omena.
Both are better than Trader Joe’s, Kirkland’s Signature, and all the other brands on the market that use refined cane sugar AND oils.
If you want the best option, go with Brownwood Acres.
This family-owned orchard in northern Michigan is the only brand we are aware of that sells cherries without any added sweeteners whatsoever (no cane sugar and no fruit juice) AND there is no oil added.
The only drawback is they are not organic. The good news is that we have spoken with them and confirmed the following:
They are unsulfured, meaning no sulfites were used during drying.
No residual pesticide residue has been detected on their fruits during tests after harvest.
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