Cherries are exceptionally nutritious, but it can be easy to miss peak cherry season since it comes and goes so fast (typically May-July in the US). But these sweet and sour superfood treats are worth waiting for, as they pack a major nutritional punch and are quite versatile in how they can be prepared.
The nutritional value of cherries is no recent discovery; in fact, they have been enjoyed and used as both food and medicine by ancient Roman, Chinese and Greek cultures for centuries. Nowadays, they are largely grown in parts of Michigan, California and the Pacific Northwest.
There are two main types of cherries: tart and sweet. Sweet cherries (like the Bing variety), are excellent when simply eaten raw, and sour cherries are often used in baking, or turned into cherry concentrate, which holds some exceptionally therapeutic benefits. Interestingly, cherries are part of the same family that includes apricots, almonds, plums and peaches, and are incredibly rich in health-promoting antioxidants.
Cherries reach their peak in summer months, so after digging into the vast nutrient benefits, we’ll also consider some other ways to incorporate cherries, even when they’re not in season.
Cherries contain potent antioxidants, particularly anthocynanins and cyanidin (1). Antioxidants are compounds that fight free radical damage, which damages our cells, and are crucial for optimal health and cancer prevention. In fact, some experts believe that the antioxidant content of cherries is so powerful that it can actually beat store-bought antioxidant supplement products (2).
Inflammation, especially the systemic type which occurs internally and causes a host of problems such as degenerative disease, chronic pain, and GI issues, is rampant in today’s society. Cherries hold potent anti-inflammatory properties (3), and have been shown to be impressively effective in lowering uric acid levels, which is the cause of gout.
Due to cherries’ unique ability to decrease systemic inflammation, they have been proven to decrease the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. In fact, one case study showed that a patient with osteoarthritis experienced a 20 percent pain reduction after drinking sour cherry juice for three weeks, twice a day.
Also largely due to both cherries’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, runners who drank sour cherry juice prior to a major event found that they had less pain than other participants. This suggests that sour/tart cherries may work to decrease muscle damage during intense forms of exercise.
Compared to many fruits, sweet cherries have a very low glycemic index, and are therefore a better choice when trying to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. This means that cherries are a great fruit choice for protecting yourself against diabetes, as they do not cause as big of a blood sugar spike than many other fruits.
Cherries can be a tasty and nutritious addition to your morning oatmeal. Simply combine your oats and water with about 1/4-1/2 cup dried cherries (no sugar added), a bit of vanilla extract, 1/4 cup of almond, coconut or organic, whole milk, and 1-2 tbsp. of organic cherry jam. Cook all together and enjoy!
Cherries are probably most well known for being added to sweet desserts or cocktails, and for good reason. To make some typical cherry desserts much healthier, simply start with about 2 cups of dark, sour cherries (with the stems), and 2 cups of dark chocolate (70% or higher). Melt your chocolate in a double boiler, or very slowly over low heat, stirring constantly. Dip your cherries once in your chocolate, and let them rest on wax paper until partially dried. Then dip a second time and allow them to cool in the fridge for 12-24 hours.
Especially considering that fresh cherries are only grown in certain climates and that their season is so short, a sugar-free cherry juice (or concentrate with added water) can be an excellent way to reap the benefits of cherries, all year round. Add a bit of honey as a sweetener if you’d like, or mix with sparkling water and fresh squeezed lime or lemon for a refreshing, summery beverage. Make sure to opt for a version that does not have tons of added sugar, as this will largely undermine the benefits you’re seeking.
There’s no fruit much more delicious than fresh, sweet cherries. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where cherries are grown and you can get them in season, munching on these as a snack throughout the day will offer some major nutritional benefits, and is definitely the easiest ways to incorporate this superfood into your diet. You can also buy them frozen and heat them up, enjoying them raw or in oatmeal, as mentioned above.
If getting them locally is nearly impossible, a once in awhile treat can be a cherry pie Lara Bar, eaten as a snack. As far as bars go, these are pretty good, boasting only 3 superfood ingredients: cherries, almonds and dates. Keep on at your desk or on hand for a quick snack that can definitely satisfy a sweet craving without reaching for more processed, packaged and nutrient-void options.
If you enjoy cherries simply in their raw, fruit form (not from concentrate, for example), very little risk or side effects are involved. However, consider the following to play it safe:
Like any food, some people might have an allergy to cherries. While this definitely isn’t a particularly common allergy, be on the lookout for signs and symptoms such as itchiness, trouble breathing or any other potential allergic reaction. If this occurs, discontinue use.
In normal, food amounts, cherries are perfectly safe (and even beneficial) for pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, cherry in a higher, medicinal dose should definitely be discussed with your doctor or healthcare practitioner.
If you are drinking tart cherry juice on a regular basis (which for many offers many benefits), there is the possibility you could experience diarrhea or abdominal pain and/or discomfort. According to the Baylor College of Medicine, this is likely due to cherry’s high sorbitol content (3).
Cherries come from the genus of plants, prunus, and typically have a short growing season in the summer months. There are many different species of cherries, but the most commonly consumed today are sweet and tart varieties, which are used in both cooking and baking, and eaten raw.
If you are lucky enough to live in a cherry-growing region, you can probably find them at your local farmers market or grocery store. Otherwise, you might have to opt for frozen cherries, jams (preferably organic and with little sugar), cherry juice or concentrate or Cherry Pie Lara Bars, for example.
If you can’t find fresh or frozen whole cherries, try a tart cherry juice concentrate with water or sparkling water added (maybe a touch of honey or other natural sweetener, too), a jam or spread make with minimal amounts of sugar, or the Lara Bar option, as mentioned above.
While cherries are most well known for being part of sugary desserts and drinks, tart cherries actually hold even more nutritional benefit and have a variety of other uses. While sweet cherries (such as Bing cherries) are best eaten raw, tart and sour cherries can be incorporated into cooking, baking and make into concentrates, which hold particularly high nutritional value.
Tart cherry juice has been shown to decrease systemic inflammation (especially gout), reduce triglycerides and support heart health (4).
Cherries (especially tart cherries) are packed full of antioxidants, hold impressive anti-inflammatory properties, have been shown to relieve arthritis associated pain and increase exercise recovery time, help to support and regulate blood sugar levels, can support restful sleep, decrease belly fat, lower risk of stroke and even help in preventing cancer.
Interestingly, cherries are actually high in melatonin, the sleep hormone. Melatonin is also an important antioxidant, that is both cell-protective and anti-inflammatory. Some research suggests that drinking cherry juice (of the sour/tart variety) before bed could help to improve sleep (5).
One study showed that sour cherries can be effective in reducing visceral (belly) fat. Excess belly fat is key in reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease.
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