Overlooked fruit tops antioxidant-power lists and contains rare analgesic pigments and sleep-aiding melatonin
by Craig Weatherby
It's been near-impossible to escape the campaign to promote pomegranate juice as a wonder food, so-called because of its high antioxidant content. And the pomegranate craze was preceded by even greater claims made for the purple Amazonian fruit called açai (ah-sigh-yee).
Both fruits enjoy status as hip new anti-aging foods, and are served up in blender drinks from Malibu to Manhattan.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that cherries—especially dried, tart cherries—approximate the potent antioxidant power of its two trendier companions.
Thanks to their association with old-fashioned fare like fruit cakes and cocktails—which employ truly awful cured or "Maraschino" cherries—people asked in surveys rank cherries as the least healthful fruit. Wrong!
Dried tart cherries have proven to be popular with our customers, so we thought you ought to know how good they are for you.
Antioxidant scores place tart cherries on anti-aging pedestal
It's becoming increasingly clear that free radicals in the body are key factors in aging and disease, as they promote cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis… even wrinkles.
The body uses its own network of antioxidant enzymes and vitamins to control free radicals, but food-borne antioxidants can boost the body's ability to handle cell-damaging oxygen radicals.
The anthocyanin-type antioxidants that give tart cherries their deep, rich color belong to a group of phenolic compounds called flavonoids.
And among the many flavonoids found in plant foods, anthocyanins possess the greatest antioxidant power.
Tart cherries contain more anthocyanins than most fruits and contain two to three times more than sweet cherries do (Kim 2005, Chandra 1992).
You may ask, "What about blueberries?". Blueberries possess a very high antioxidant count, but they are beat by prunes, raisins, dark chocolate, pomegranates, and açai.
And we're not talking about fresh tart cherries, which approximate the antioxidant capacity of blueberries, but dried tart cherries, in which the antioxidants are super-concentrated, along with every other constituent in the fruit.
The antioxidant power of foods is measured using a scale called Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC).
While this scale is often used to compare the antioxidant power of foods, it only captures part of the antioxidant picture, but for now, it is the most widely accepted standard for comparison.
Tests by the USDA and Brunswick Laboratories (using the USDA method), show the following ORAC values per 100 grams (3.5 ounces):
(*Note: Because its phenols get concentrated when tart cherries are dried, this form of the fruit has a higher antioxidant score than would fresh or frozen cherries. Vital Choice offers wild, certified organic blueberries, which score even higher than cultivated blueberries. While we don't doubt the claims made for pomegranates, we could not find a documented ORAC score for them.)
USDA researchers estimate that people need to consume 3,000 to 5,000 ORAC units of antioxidants a day to reach the level of antioxidant capacity in the blood associated with various health benefits.
Since tart cherries are so rich in antioxidant power, they can go a long way toward helping you meeting that goal.
The authors of a study from Norway, who used total antioxidant content as the basis for comparison, found that tart cherries ranked 14th among the top 50 foods with the highest antioxidant content per serving size, surpassing red wine, prunes, dark chocolate, and orange juice (Halvorsen 2006).
Note: Like most, our Organic Dried Tart Cherries contain minuscule dabs of added organic cane sugar and organic oil. For more on this, see “Dried Berries and Cherries Draw Sugar and Oil Concerns” (In short, given the tiny amounts involved, it's a non-issue).
Cherries fight cancer, heart disease, and arthritis pain
Cherries have long been relied on to relieve the pain of arthritis and gout (Blau LW 1950). And there's a good scientific reason for the fruit's folk-medicinal reputation.
Researchers at Michigan State University tested a variety of berries and other fruits and found that tart cherries contained the highest concentrations of two unusual phenols called anthocyanins 1 and 2: compounds not found in blueberries or cranberries (Seeram NP et al 2001).
These rare anthocyanins block the same inflammation-inducing enzymes (COX-1 and COX-2) inhibited by aspirin, ibruprofen (Advil) and newer “COX-2-inhibitor” analgesics like Vioxx and Celebrex.
The presence of these and other anthocyanins also make tart cherries potent heart-health allies.
In a study from the University of Michigan, varying amounts of whole tart cherry powder were fed to rats for 90 days. The cherry-enriched diets significantly lowered blood triglycerides and total cholesterol, fasting glucose and insulin, and a plasma marker of oxidative damage, while slightly raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol and significantly elevating blood antioxidant capacity.
The cherry-enriched diets also reduced harmful accumulation of triglycerides and cholesterol in the liver (Seymour 2007).
Researchers believe tart cherries may have the potential to reduce the risk of several cancers, both because of its flavonoids and also because cherries are rich in a phytonutrient called perillyl alcohol (POH), related to the limonenes in citrus fruits (Crowell PL 1996, 1997, 1999; Belanger JT 1998).
Cherries for brain power
The brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative damage from free radicals, since it accounts for about 20 percent of the total body's oxygen consumption, but it is only about two percent of the body's weight.
Numerous studies show that the phenols abundant in tart cherries protect brain cells from oxidative damage.
And an animal study from Korea confirms that dietary cherries protect brain neurons from oxidative damage, to extents that correspond to the amounts of anthocyanins in the fruit (Kim 2005).
Cherries as sleep aids
Along with walnuts, cherries are one of the few good food sources of melatonin: a bodily potent antioxidant produced in the pineal gland, which regulates the body's circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Tart cherries contain 13.5 nanograms (ng) of melatonin per gram (Burkhardt 2001).
Prominent melatonin researcher Russel J. Reiter, Ph.D. of the University of Texas speculates that eating a handful of tart cherries may help increase melatonin levels in the blood, thereby promoting restful sleep.
Melatonin may also help protect the vascular system, lessen inflammation, and reduce ischemia and reperfusion injury associated with surgery (Tan 2000 and 2003, Cuzzocrea 2001, Lissoni 1997, Reiter 2001 and 2000).
A study by Dr. Reiter and researchers from St. Marianna University of School of Medicine in Japan found that feeding chicks a diet containing plants rich in melatonin indicating that dietary melatonin is absorbed into the bloodstream and can binding to sites in the brain and other tissues (Hattori 1995).
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