Skip the Acai for this Cheap Superfood

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on May 20, 2011 · 4 comments

Cherry blossoms signal the coming of spring and we are sure it is summer when fresh cherries appear in the supermarket. Otherwise few of us give cherries a second thought. We should. Research is showing that tart cherries – the type used in cherry pie filling, for cherry juice, and the dried variety – rank as a superfruit. Forget acai and gogi berries, US grown tart cherries are tiny nutrition powerhouses.

Tart cherries are seldom sold fresh and they really aren’t tart. They are the cherries typically used to make pies but that use is declining as they become widely available dried, frozen, canned, and as juice or juice concentrate. They are grown throughout the US and available year round, giving them an edge over the limited fresh cherry season.

Over 75 research studies dating from the 1950s have shown that compounds in cherries possess anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Anthocyanins, the pigment that gives cherries their bright red color are part of a group of compounds with extraordinary antioxidant capacity.

Before we go any further touting the virtues of cherries, let’s understand why antioxidants are so important. Oxidation, the use of oxygen in the body is critical to life. In the process free radicals are formed. These are renegade oxygen molecules which cause damage in the body, may promote cancer and heart disease, and are responsible for aging. Antioxidants, natural plant compounds, scavenge and deactivate damaging free radicals protecting the body from disease and possibly slowing the aging process.

The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) analysis measures the antioxidant capacity of foods. The more free radicals a food can absorb and deactivate the higher the ORAC score. Researchers suggest we consume 3,000 to 5,000 ORAC units a day. A quarter cup of dried cherries ranks 3,060 on the ORAC scale. Cherries contain at least 17 different antioxidants and rank 14 out of 50 for the highest antioxidant content per serving. Tart cherries outrank other well known antioxidant-containing foods such as red wine, prunes, dark chocolate and orange juice.

Two of the antioxidants found in cherries, anthocyanin 1 and 2, function like aspirin blocking COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. These are the enzymes involved in inflammation and pain associated with arthritis and gout. A half cup serving of canned cherries is the equivalent of 1.41 grams of aspirin, while a half cup of frozen cherries equals 0.9 grams of aspirin. A standard aspirin tablet equals 0.325 grams. Conceivably, eating cherries could relieve the pain of arthritis and gout, and clinical studies have shown just that. A study done at the University of Vermont showed less post-exercise soreness when cherry juice was drunk before and after exercising.

The antioxidant effect found in cherries may extend beyond pain management to protect our arteries from damage. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a marker for inflammation in the body. High levels of CRP are connected to an increased risk for heart disease. Daily cherry consumption lowers CRP and decreases inflammation. Our brains use 20% of the body’s total oxygen so it stands to reason the brain is also at risk for oxidative damage which has been linked to memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Animal studies have shown the antioxidants found in cherries can be protective against brain cell damage which may have implications for prevention of mental decline as people age.

Tart cherries are one of the few known food sources of melatonin, an antioxidant often taken in supplement form to fight jet lag or improve sleep. Russel J. Reiter, PhD, at the University of Texas, a prominent researcher of melatonin, suggests that eating a handful of tart cherries could improve the body’s natural sleep patterns. Studies also suggest that increased melatonin level in the blood may lessen inflammation in the body’s vascular system, protecting it from damage.

Here are some easy ways to add the cherries to your meals and snacks.

  • Mix dried cherries with nuts for a grab and go healthy snack.
  • Add dried cherries to cereal, oatmeal or yogurt.
  • Add dried cherries to tossed salads, chicken or tuna salad.
  • Toss frozen or canned cherries into couscous, rice, pilaf or gravies.
  • Drink cherry juice.
  • Warm cherry pie filling in the microwave for dessert, minus the crust you save over 300 calories.
  • Gently warm canned cherries and serve as a savory side to accompany fish, chicken or pork dishes.
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