What Tart Cherries?
Other names: Prunus cerasus, sour cherry, pie cherry, tart cherry juice, montmorency cherry, balaton cherry
Cherries are the smallest members of the stone fruit family, which include plums, apricots, nectarines, and peaches. Cherries are typically classified as either sweet or tart. Sweet cherries include Bing cherries, Lambert cherries, Rainier cherries and are grown mainly in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Tart cherries include the Montmorency and Balaton varieties and are produced primarily in Michigan.
Uses For Tart Cherries and Juice
Both sweet and tart cherries and cherry juice have long been used by traditional healers as a folk remedy for gout, because cherries are thought to lower urate levels in the body.Tart cherries are used for conditions involving inflammation and pain, such as:
- rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis
- muscle pain
- back pain
- neurodegenerative diseases
Both sweet and tart cherries contain phenolics, naturally-occurring plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant effects. The main type of phenolic in cherries is called anthocyanins. In general, the darker the cherry color, the higher the anthocyanin content.
Anthocyanins have been found to block two enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2, which play a role in the production of inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins. Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen and ibuprofen also work this way.
In test tube studies, cherry anthocyanins have been found to protect neurons from damage by oxidative stress. However, there have been no studies that have looked at whether cherry extracts could prevent or slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease in humans.
Both Balaton and Montmorency tart cherries contain relatively high levels of the antioxidant melatonin compared to other foods. Montmorency cherries contain approximately 6 times more melatonin than do Balaton cherries.
Are Tart Cherries More Effective Than Sweet Cherries?
Generally, tart cherries have been found to have higher concentrations of phenolics and anthocyanins than sweet cherries. Tart cherries are also slightly lower in sugar. Half a cup of sweet cherries contains 9.3 g of sugar and 46 calories, compared to 6.6 g of sugar and 39 calories in tart cherries.
However, there is no real evidence that these differences are significant-both types of cherries are very high in anthocyanins compared with other foods.
It may be that we are hearing more about the health benefits of tart cherries because of the way they are marketed. In 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to 29 cherry farmers and distributors for positioning tart cherries on their websites as a medicinal food that could possibly help people with gout, arthritis, diabetes, and prevent cancer.
What Research Has Been Done on Tart Charries?
Although anthocyanins, which are also found in blueberries and other purplish-red fruits and vegetables, are known to be powerful antioxidants, no studies have looked at whether cherries--tart or sweet--can relieve symptoms of arthritis, gout, or diabetes outside the lab.
All studies involving cherries have been very small, so we'll have to wait to see whether tart cherries are beneficial and in what quantities. In the meantime, here are a few of the studies that have been conducted so far:
A small randomized controlled trial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the effectiveness of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage. Fourteen male college students drank 12 fl oz of a cherry juice blend or a placebo, twice per day for eight consecutive days. Strength loss was significantly lower in people taking the cherry juice (4%) compared with the placebo (22%). Pain was also significantly lower in people taking the cherry juice.
- Jill M. Tall, Ph.D., research fellow at Johns Hopkins, was the lead researcher of a study that tested the effectiveness of orally administrated anthocyanins from tart cherries on inflammation-induced pain in rats. The results of the study suggested that tart cherry anthocyanins may have a beneficial role in reducing inflammatory pain.
- One small study published in the Journal of Nutrition supported the anti-gout effectiveness of cherries. assessed the effects of Bing cherry (a sweet cherry) consumption on healthy women and found that cherry consumption decreased blood urate levels, and there was a marginal decrease in inflammatory markers c-reactive protein and nitric oxide.
Cherries contain sorbitol, which may exacerbate symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, or fructose malabsorption.
Where to Find Tart Cherries
Tart cherry juice and fresh, frozen or dried tart cherries can be found in grocery stores, health food stores, and online.
Burkhardt S et al. "Detection and quantification of the antioxidant melatonin in Montmorency and Balaton tart cherries (Prunus cerasus)." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 49.10 (2001):4898-902.
Connolly D et al. "The efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage." British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2006 Jun 21.
Jacob RA et al. "Consumption of cherries lowers plasma urate in healthy women." Journal of Nutrition. 133.6 (2003):1826-9.
Kang SY et al. "Tart cherry anthocyanins inhibit tumor development in Apc(Min) mice and reduce proliferation of human colon cancer cells." Cancer Letters. 194.1 (2003):13-9.
Kim DO et al. "Sweet and sour cherry phenolics and their protective effects on neuronal cells." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 53.26 (2005):9921-7.
Seeram NP et al. "Degradation products of cyanidin glycosides from tart cherries and their bioactivities." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 49.10 (2001):4924-9.
Tall Jill M et al. "Tart cherry anthocyanins suppress inflammation-induced pain behavior in rat." Behavioural Brain Research. 153.1 (2004): 181-8.