Fresh cherries – delicious, juicy gems that we get to enjoy every summer. They are surprisingly nutritious too so don’t hold back!
The cherry tree is native to Asia and Europe and many species now grow across the Northern hemisphere, including wild cherries. For culinary purposes, there are two main species – sweet and sour. The sweet ones are best fresh while sour cherries are usually used in cooking as they’re simply too sour to be enjoyed on their own.
What’s in a cup?
One cup of fresh, whole sweet cherries offers natural fruit sugar as well as over three grams of fibre, two grams of protein, small amounts of B vitamins, beta-carotene (vitamin A), vitamin K, 18 per cent of your vitamin C requirement and small amounts of important minerals such as iron, calcium, copper, magnesium and potassium. Sour cherries are similar, the only differences being less sugar, more beta-carotene, malic acid and vitamin C – the latter two neatly explaining their tartness!
Vitamin C is essential for healthy and supple skin, a strong immune system and wound healing, while magnesium and potassium are needed for muscle contraction, heartbeat regulation, nerve function and healthy bones. Beta-carotene is turned into vitamin A in your body and is vital for healthy vision, mucous membranes and the immune system.
Cherry health shields
Vitamins C and A are also antioxidants, protecting your cells and blood vessels from damage, guarding your DNA from free radicals (damaging products of metabolism and environmental pollution) and reducing inflammation in your body. However, cherries pack many more potent antioxidants, mostly polyphenols, which are amazing health-defenders.
Polyphenols are strong antioxidants that have anti-cancer properties and protect your health but they also stimulate your own immune system into becoming sharper. In scientific tests, cherry polyphenols were able to protect fats in cell membranes from damage and also prevented the formation of molecules that help to form artery plaques – this is crucial to prevent the arteries from narrowing and also heart disease.
And there’s more! Cherry polyphenols block certain enzymes that cancer cells need to reproduce and prevent unhelpful inflammatory reactions. It has also been suggested they may act as mild pain-killers.
Over recent years, cherries have been studied for their potential to help athletes recover after training. Thanks to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, cherry polyphenols reduce the level of damage muscles suffer during physical activity and after training, they help to speed up the repair of any damage that might have occurred.
Some research also shows that cherries help to reduce muscle soreness and increase performance level. In one study, endurance runners were given 480 milligrams daily of tart cherry powder in a capsule for 10 days prior to a race and their finish times were, on average, 13 per cent faster. They also experienced less muscle damage and soreness and their inflammation levels were much lower than in their competitors. In another study, drinking 60 millilitres of tart cherry juice had a similar effect.
In many of these experiments, tart cherry juice or powder was used so it’s unclear how many fresh cherries you’d have to eat to achieve the same results. Either way, eating a bowl of them is good for you for many reasons, including improving your workouts – what’s not to like?
Fresh cherries or tart cherry juice may help to improve your sleep quality and duration. In scientific studies, the effect was seen with the consumption of 140 grams of cherries (around 25 cherries) or 240 millilitres of tart cherry juice. The reason is simple – cherries contain melatonin, a hormone that can help you to sleep.
Your pineal gland (in the brain) also produces melatonin, in increasing amounts towards the evening, signalling to the brain that it’s time to snooze. Levels remain high throughout the night and start dropping towards the morning, signalling to the brain that it’s time to wake up.
Some plants naturally contain melatonin and cherries are an exceptionally good source. In several studies, they even helped people with insomnia fall asleep faster and sleep better throughout the night.
What’s more, research shows that alongside sleep improvement, cherries also reduced people’s stress hormone levels and improved their mood.
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of cherries can be a welcome relief for people with arthritis and gout. Both conditions affect the joints, causing inflammation, pain and swelling. By blocking the formation of some inflammatory proteins, cherries can help to alleviate these symptoms.
In gout, the main problem is accumulation of uric acid in the joints, usually caused by high meat consumption, and cherries can also help with that by lowering uric acid levels in the body. In a recent study, cherry consumption reduced gout attacks by 35 per cent!
That’s not to say that cherries are a miracle cure – they’re not – but they can help. It is the overall diet and lifestyle that are paramount in the management and treatment of these conditions.
To sum it up, cherries are not just tasty, they are also great for your health. Now here comes the downer – cherries are among those fruits that absorb pesticides fairly well and so usually contain their residues. If you’re able to get organic cherries, you’ve hit a jackpot. If not, conventional ones still offer a wealth of benefits despite having traces of pesticides. The solution is to enjoy your cherries but don’t eat a bucketful at one time.
Cherries are very seasonal but you can usually find frozen ones all year long. They can make a great addition to smoothies, cereal breakfasts and desserts. Enjoy!