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Tart red cherries show strong antioxidant effects

There is a certain mystique about cherries that comes through in music and poetry. Think about the beauty and romance of cherry blossom time, and what was one of the criteria “charming Billy” used to decide if he would marry the maiden in the old nursery rhyme? She is asked whether she can bake a cherry pie—indeed, the favourite dessert for many folks. There's another positive characteristic to add to the reputation of cherries—the health benefits they offer, particularly because of their antioxidant properties.

Cherries can be divided into two broad categories—sweet and sour or tart—with dozens of varieties in each category. They are closely related to peaches, plums and apricots—all being tree fruits with pits—with similar nutrients, but they do contain some unique health properties. We will focus on tart red cherries such as Montmorency and Balaton, used primarily in cooking, which appear to have an edge in the cherry family when it comes to nutrition.

It should be noted that while research into the health benefits of cherries is limited—most have been small pilot trials using tart cherry juice—there are definitely some tantalizing possibilities that have emerged. However, further studies with larger sample numbers need to be performed to confirm outcomes. What we do know is that cherries have a range of vitamins and minerals as all fruit does, and they are a healthy addition to the diet. In most cases, juice of a fruit contains nutrients in a concentrated form.

Evidenced by colour

While tart cherries are not the “ultimate antioxidant” as some people have claimed, there is no doubt, they contain important antioxidant properties. As evidenced by the colour, cherries are rich in a phytochemical known as anthocyanins also true for raspberries, strawberries, beets, apples and red onions. This indicates that cherries are anti-inflammatory—that is they have the potential of helping to relieve pain from conditions such as arthritis, gout and perhaps headache by inhibiting an enzyme known as cyclooxygenase, in a way similar to aspirin. This is definitely worth further research.

Where evidence is clearer is in studies done with subjects involved in intense physical activity. Drinking tart cherry juice twice a day for eight days significantly reduced pain caused by the wear and tear of muscles, as well as reduced the loss of strength after cessation of exercise when measured against ingesting a placebo drink. Markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein and uric acid were measured and found to be lower in the cherry juice group. Thus it appears cherry juice might assist in helping muscles recover function after strenuous exercise.

There is also evidence that anthocynins might be useful in controlling diabetes since the antioxidant is effective in increasing insulin production by the pancreas when exposed to sugar. Another interesting possibility is that the anthocyanins in cherry juice might protect against brain injury which also leads one to ask whether they could be a factor in mitigating Alzheimer's disease.

Helps sleep

A second important antioxidant found in tart cherries is melatonin, which you may be familiar with as a hormone released from the pineal gland in the brain which helps us feel sleepy. This has led research scientists to believe that Montmorency cherries (especially rich in melatonin) and its juice may have therapeutic potential as a sleeping aid. As an antioxidant, melatonin also reduces oxidative stress in the body which would have the effect of improving sleep, so reduction in insomnia after drinking tart cherry juice might well be due to both facets. It might be worth your while to drink cherry juice at night instead of tea or coffee if you have trouble sleeping, although you might want to avoid a drink before facing a tough exam!

A third antioxidant found in tart cherries is quercetin that also plays a role in preventing oxidative damage caused by free radicals to LDL (“bad” cholesterol). When LDL cholesterol is damaged it is more likely to cling to blood artery walls, forming plaque which narrows the walls, contributing to heart attack and stroke.

Thus one can conclude that eating cherries of any type is not only a pleasurable experience, but will also provide you with a whole range nutrients including several important antioxidants. While both the whole fruit and juice have the same nutrients, the juice contains them in a more concentrated form while the whole fruit is important for fibre.