Enjoy the great taste of cherries all year!

Health Benefits of Cherries

Written by: Cynthia Thomson, PhD, RD, Department of Nutritional Sciences,
and Chieri Kubota, PhD, Department of Plant Sciences, at the University of Arizona
Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are known to reduce the risk of chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity or select inflammatory disorders. While data on the specific health benefits of cherries is limited, in recent years the U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded its bioactive food component database to include an analysis of anthocyanin content of select plant foods, and sweet, fresh cherries are considered to be significant sources of anthocyanins in the human diet.

Other Potential Health Promoting

Nutrients and Phytochemicals
Sweet cherries are considered a good source of dietary potassium, with approximately 260 mg potassium for every cup of fresh cherries consumed (USDA MyPyramid nutrient data analysis program). In the past ten years, there has been increasing evidence of the importance of adequate potassium intake in reducing the risk for hypertension and stroke risk as well as other causes of morbidity (He, 2003). More than half of all American adults have high blood pressure levels. A diet high in potassium and calcium, and low in sodium and alcohol, is a reasonable and safe approach to promote blood pressure control.
Sweet cherries also contain a small amount of quercetin (Dunnick, 1992). Quercetin is among the most potent in terms of antioxidant activity. The ability of quercetin to act as a free radical scavenger suggests it could play a beneficial role in reducing reactive oxygen species (ROS) (i.e. hydrogen peroxide, superoxide anion) associated with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer (Johnson, 2000; Wilms, 2005).
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that in addition to antioxidant activity also plays a role in promoting healthy circadian rhythm and thus promoting healthy sleep patterns. Cherries are one plant food source of melatonin and melatonin levels have been estimated to be higher in tart cherries as compared to sweet cherries. In one study, melatonin supplementation appears to be effective in reducing jet lag (Herxheimer, 2002; Suhner, 2001). In combination with other behavioral approaches to promote sleep or reduce jet lag, sweet cherry intake in usual amounts could prove to be useful. Again, more research is needed.

Sweet cherries have several cancer-preventive components including fiber, vitamin C, carotenoids and anthocyanins. The potential role of sweet cherries in cancer prevention lies mostly in the anthocyanin content, especially in cyanidin. Sweet cherries are a good source of cyanidins, which appear to act as an antioxidant and in this role may reduce cancer risk. In a study by Acquaviva et al, a significant increase in free radical scavenging was demonstrated with exposure to cyanidin (Acquaviva, 2003) and a separate study using human cancer cell lines demonstrated cell cycle arrest and apoptosis of mutated cells exposed to cherry anthocyanins (Lazze, 2004; Shih, 2005). Further research suggests that the growth arrest characteristics of cyanidin are likely, at least in part, to be a result of significant inhibitory effects of these cherry components on epidermal growth factor receptors (Meirers, 2001). Finally, there is compelling evidence from basic science that cyanidin may also promote cellular differentiation and thus reduce the risk for healthy cells to transform to cancer (Serafino, 2004).

Cardiovascular Disease
The role of red wine in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease has been studied widely for more than 20 years, and studies suggest anthocyanin found in red wine has important biological effects that reduce cardiovascular disease risk (Corder, 2006). This includes protecting lipids from oxidant damage and cardiovascular vessel plaque formation, anti-inflammation, nitric oxide formation and vascular dilation. Similarly, sweet cherries have been shown to have significant levels of anthocyanins as well as other pigments in perhaps smaller concentrations that together provide synergistic effects thought to be protective to heart and related vascular tissue (Reddy, 2005).

Evidence suggesting a protective role for cherries for diabetes is relatively rare, but researchers are interested in the role of anthocyanins in reducing insulin resistance and glucose intolerance. In one study, cells exposed to various glucose loads and then exposed to anthocyanins and anthocyanidins showed increased insulin production, suggesting the role of these compounds in blood glucose control should be explored further (Jayaprakasam, 2005). The study suggested that the bioactive compounds found in cherries are responsive, in terms of enhanced insulin production, to a glucose-rich environment and work to control glucose levels.

Recently the role of the glycemic index in diabetes control has gained renewed interest. Sweet cherries have an estimated glycemic index of 22, generally lower than other fruits including apricots (57), grapes (46), peaches (42), blueberries (40) or plums (39). The lower glycemic index makes sweet cherries a potentially better fruit-based snack food (as compared with many other fruits) for people with diabetes. The lower glycemic response shown in relation to cherry consumption may be the result of glucose-lowering effects of cherry phytochemicals in combination with the relatively modest fiber content of cherries.