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Tart Cherries Contain Potent Antioxidants

May 1, 2006
Tart cherries as the latest in health foods may sound like little more than sour grapes. But there's nothing sour about their positive effect on health.

It was 30 years ago at an outdoor market near Missaukee Lake in Michigan that I ran across a jug labeled cherry cider. It was a deep wine-red color, and I figured it to be the juice of dark sweet cherries. A sucker for naturally sweet drinks and a big fan of apple cider, I bought it, and was I in for a surprise. This stuff wasn't at all what I expected. The slightly sweet taste was hidden under a tart, sour bite - I was hooked! (Unfortunately, it was a seasonal drink and a rare find outside of a few markets.) Tart cherries, the ones you stuff into pies, not only make an addictive juice, they just may relieve your pains and boost your health.

From folklore to industry

"Father, I can not tell a lie; I cut the tree," so said the young George Washington when confronted with hacking his father's favorite cherry tree. At least that's the popular myth told by Pastor Mason Locke Weems in 1806. Cherries are related to other stone fruits like prunes, peaches and apricots. Generally brilliant red, tart cherries are lower in sugar content than the sweet varieties and higher in organic acids, particularly malic acid, which provides their characteristic bite.

In the mid-1800s, a Presbyterian minister named Peter Dougherty planted a bunch of tart cherry trees near Traverse City, Mich., and by 1900, the Michigan cherry industry was on its way. Today Traverse City is the cherry capital of the world, producing 40 percent of the tart cherries sold in the USA. Every year during harvest time in July, thousands of cherry fans return to Mecca for the annual cherry festival. Only there can you stuff your face with every conceivable cherry recipe, lean back and watch the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels perform overhead.

From folklore to research

The folklore surrounding tart cherries is replete with anecdotal reports of their ability to aid persons suffering from the pain of gout and arthritis. So, with 40% of Americans seeking some form of complementary and alternative treatment for chronic conditions, especially pain, cherry anecdotes are being taken seriously. The health properties may not be a myth after all.

Researchers at The Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore, Md.) and at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Mich.) looked at the pain-easing potential of the unique flavonoids called anthocyanins, extracted from tart cherries. The studies (conducted on rats) revealed that anthocyanins earned their pain-relief reputation by reducing inflammation and edema, a common source of pain. In fact, they worked as well as the nonsteroidal drug indomethacin, though the effect was not as long-lasting.

Lighter colored than their sweet cousins, sour cherries are a brilliant, almost unnatural red. Photo and caption courtesy of Epicurious.com.

Anthocyanins act like ibuprofen, hindering the ability of the Cox I and II enzymes to convert arachidonic acid to inflammatory prostaglandins. But their protection extends beyond that of fighting inflammation. These versatile compounds are also potent antioxidants. This dual property of combating both inflammation and oxidation may explain why anthocyanins have outperformed vitamins C and E at protecting arteries from plaque buildup in other studies conducted at Michigan State University.

Speaking of antioxidant protection, tart cherries are among nature's most abundant sources of natural melatonin, a chemical produced also in the pineal gland of vertebrate animals. Melatonin is a unique antioxidant, protecting against free-radical damage from several reactive oxygen species. It's found in foods such as cabbage, tomato, rice, orange, apple and banana, where it protects the plant from free radicals generated during photosynthesis. In plant seeds, melatonin may protect the germ and reproductive tissues from ravages of ultraviolet light, drought, temperature extremes, and environmental toxins.

The amount of melatonin in cherries varies with the variety. For example, Montmorency cherries, which constitute the vast majority of US cherries, carry about six times more of the compound that do Balaton cherries. But even the Balaton cherries are far richer in melatonin than other fruits and vegetables.

Melatonin has physical properties that make it at home in both aqueous and fatty environments, so it can cross membranes and reach into the tiniest subcellular compartments to exert its protection. That makes it both powerful and highly effective. Also unique is how melatonin provides protection. Most antioxidants become radicals themselves after halting a free-radical chain reaction; they just become less dangerous ones. For example, after neutralizing a threat, vitamin E becomes a weak oxidant and must be regenerated in order to go back to work. Melatonin is different. Upon donating its services as a free-radical policeman, it is converted to a harmless compound.

But there's still more to the cherry folklore, and again the good news comes from Michigan State University. It turns out that some of the anthocyanins in tart cherries have the potential to inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors in the colon - at least that's what they found in mice. Mice that ate cherries with their mouse diet or drank water spiked with anthocyanins got fewer and smaller tumors than control mice. In experiments with cultured human colon cancer cells, anthocyanins displayed the same ability to slow down cancer cell growth.

From folklore to the big time

As more research is done, it certainly will become clear that the health promise of tart cherries is no myth. There's something to the folklore, more than enough to get people reaching for a cherry juice to ease the pain of arthritis and gout, or just to hedge their bets against disease. But if that's all we see, we're not looking closely enough. Consider another possibility, from the perspective of a long-time fan of this distinctive fruit.

Assemble the pieces. Tart cherries tend to be more nutrient-dense than sweet cherries because of their relatively low sugar content. Lower in calories, they are higher in vitamin C and beta carotene, with small amounts of B vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, and lots of potassium - electrolytes. They have a clean, not-so-sweet taste, and are naturally anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Most sports drinks require pretty fancy formulation to claim these inherent properties, and few can match the taste. Now add a pinch of salt to complete the electrolyte picture, dilute to the proper concentration with pure water, and BAM! Can anyone say cherry power? It's just a thought.

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