Tart Cherries and Tart Cherry Juice

tart cherries
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What are Tart Cherries?

The smallest members of the stone fruit family (which includes plums, apricots, nectarines, and peaches), cherries are typically classified as sweet or tart. Tart cherries include the Montmorency and Balaton varieties, while sweet cherries include the Bing and Rainier varieties.

Why Do People Use Tart Cherries and Tart Cherry Juice?

Cherries and cherry juice have long been used as remedies for gout.

Both sweet and tart cherries contain anthocyanins, naturally-occurring plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Some research suggests that anthocyanins inhibit cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes, which play a role in the inflammation process. Tart cherries are used for conditions involving inflammation and pain, such as:

In laboratory 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 can 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.

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 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 Cherries?

Although anthocyanins (which are also found in blueberries and other purplish-red fruits and vegetables) are known to be powerful antioxidants, few studies have looked at whether cherries can relieve symptoms of arthritis, gout, or diabetes outside of 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 some of the more recent studies that have been conducted:

1) Post-Workout Muscle Recovery

Tart cherries could help you bounce back after a workout, suggests a 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

In tests on 23 resistance-trained men, researchers found that study participants who took powdered tart cherry experienced a reduction in muscle soreness, strength loss during recovery, and markers of muscle damage, inflammation, and oxidative stress than those who took a placebo.

2) Sleep

Tart Montmorency cherries are said to be naturally rich in melatonin, the hormone involved in regulating sleep-wake cycles. For a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition in 2012, 20 healthy people consumed either a tart cherry juice concentrate or a placebo for seven days. Total melatonin content (as measured in urine) was significantly elevated in those who consumed cherry juice group, with significant increases in total sleep time, time in bed, and sleep efficiency.

3) Gout

Small experimental studies suggest that cherry consumption can lower serum uric acid levels in people with gout, a painful inflammatory arthritis caused by the crystallization of uric acid within joints. A 2012 study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism analyzed 633 people with gout who had had a gout attack within the past 12 months.

Cherry intake over a two-day period was associated with a 35 percent lower risk of recurrent gout attacks compared to no intake. When cherry intake was combined with medications (allopurinol), the risk of gout attacks was 75 percent lower.

4) Osteoarthritis

Tart cherry juice may not help with osteoarthritis pain, according to a study published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage in 2013. Researchers found that tart cherry juice relieved symptoms for people with mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee, but the effect wasn't significantly greater than a placebo. Walking time and acetominophen use also weren't affected by the treatment with tart cherry juice.

Possible Side Effects

Cherries contain sorbitol, which may exacerbate symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, or fructose malabsorption or cause diarrhea and stomach upset. 

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label. Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications (such as blood thinners) has not been established. You can get tips on using supplements here, but if you're considering the use of tart cherry supplements, talk with your primary care provider first. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

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.

The Bottom Line

Drinking tart cherry juice or eating tart cherries may boost your anthocyanin intake and antioxidant status. While the studies on the health benefits are promising, we don't have enough evidence to recommend tart cherries or cherry juice as a primary treatment for pain, gout, or insomnia. If you're still considering adding tart cherry juice to your diet, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider to discuss whether it's appropriate for you.

Sources:

Levers K, Dalton R, Galvan E, et al. Effects of powdered Montmorency tart cherry supplementation on an acute bout of intense lower body strength exercise in resistance trained males. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Nov 16;12:41. 

Howatson G, Bell PG, Tallent J, Middleton B, McHugh MP, Ellis J. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 2012 Dec;51(8):909-16. 

Schumacher HR, Pullman-Mooar S, Gupta SR, Dinnella JE, Kim R, McHugh MP. Randomized double-blind crossover study of the efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2013 Aug;21(8):1035-41. 

Zhang Y, Neogi T, Chen C, Chaisson C, Hunter DJ, Choi HK. Cherry consumption and decreased risk of recurrent gout attacks. Arthritis Rheum. 2012 Dec;64(12):4004-11. 

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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