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Does Tart Cherry Juice Really Have Health Benefits?

Tart (or sour) cherry juice has developed quite a reputation as an arthritis cure, anti-inflammatory agent, even an insomnia cure. Is there enough evidence to support adding tart cherry juice to your day?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #536
Cherry juice

Vicky writes:

“I'd like to hear your take on drinking tart cherry juice. I've heard many times that it reduces inflammation. I have arthritis, and although I don’t have any pain or take any medications for it, reducing inflammation seems like a good idea. I started drinking about a cup a day, but quit when I read the label and realized how much sugar it had. Is it worth all the sugar to get the health benefits?”

Tart (or sour) cherry juice has developed quite a reputation as an arthritis cure, anti-inflammatory agent, and even a natural sleeping aid. And there is some research to review. But first, a few basics.

What’s the Difference Between Sweet and Tart Cherries? 

There are couple of varieties of cherries sold as tart or sour cherries but Montmorency is the most common. They are lighter in color—bright red rather than the dark purple of Bing cherries, which are the most common type of sweet cherry. Tart cherries are also, as the name suggests, somewhat lower in sugar.  

A cup of sweet cherries contains about 90 calories and 18 grams of natural sugar. A cup of tart cherries provides just 50 calories and about 10 grams of sugar. But tart cherries are generally too tart to eat out of hand. You’re more likely to find them canned in heavy syrup, or in the juice aisle, next to the cranberry or pomegranate juice. And lately, thanks to their growing reputation as a health food, tart cherry extracts and powders are also showing up in the supplement aisle. 

A cup of tart cherries provides just 50 calories and about 10 grams of sugar. But tart cherries are generally too tart to eat out of hand.

Even though it’s tart enough to put a pucker on your puss, 8 ounces ( 240 mL) of unsweetened tart cherry juice still contains about 30 grams of sugar. And, like any fruit juice, cherry juice retains many of the nutrients but does not contain the fiber you’d get from eating whole fruit. 

What’s in Tart Cherries?

Cherries, both sweet and tart, contain a variety of antioxidant compounds, including various flavonoids, carotenoids, and good old vitamin C.  They're particularly rich in anthocyanins, a family of phytonutrients that are also found in berries, red cabbage, plums, onions, black and red rice, grapes, and, famously, red wine.  

Anthocyanins have been linked with a wide range of health benefits—everything from improved lung and brain function to reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.  Human studies using tart cherry juice have also been linked to benefits including reduced oxidative stress, inflammation, and arthritis pain.  

In addition, there’s been quite a bit of research looking at the effect of tart cherry juice or concentrate on elite athletes. Results suggest that by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, tart cherry products can help to eliminate post-workout muscle soreness.

Are these Benefits Unique to Cherries?

But virtually all of the studies compared the cherry juice or concentrate to a placebo with a similar amount of sugar. They didn’t compare cherry juice to other fruit and vegetable juices.  This could be because a lot of the research into the health benefits of cherries has been funded by agricultural commissions in cherry-growing states. That doesn’t mean that the research findings aren’t valid. But, for me, the design of the studies leaves an important unanswered question: Are tart cherries more beneficial than any other antioxidant-rich fruit or vegetable?

The average American takes in about 12 mg of anthocyanins per day. But keep in mind that only about 1 in 10 Americans gets the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables each day. 

A cup of tart cherry juice might provide about 60 mg of anthocyanins. But so would eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

In terms of reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, I suspect that whatever benefits you get from tart cherries would be available from other anthocyanin-rich fruits and vegetables as well. And there’s research to bear this out. High fruit and vegetable intake is, in fact, linked with reduced inflammation and oxidative stress and reduced arthritis pain.

When it comes to the amount of anthocyanins you get per serving, cherries aren’t even in the top ten sources. And eating a variety of plant foods, rather than concentrating on one “superfood,” is going to give you a much wider array of nutrients and phytochemicals.  It’s also a lot more interesting.

And eating a variety of plant foods, rather than concentrating on one “superfood,” is going to give you a much wider array of nutrients and phytochemicals.

Finally, although a juice or powder might offer a more concentrated dose of antioxidants, more is not always better.  (See alsoCan you get too many antioxidants). Not only that, but when you rely on a juice or powder to get your plant nutrition, you miss out on the many benefits of consuming the whole fruits and vegetables. 

Whole fruits and vegetables are much more filling than juice or powder, in part because of the fiber but also due to the physical action of chewing them and the time it takes to consume them. In my experience, when people start eating more whole fruits and vegetables, they tend to have less room on their plates and in their stomachs for junk food and empty calories. 

See also: Satiety vs Satiation

Cherries as a Natural Sleep Aid

There’s one thing cherries have that does set them apart from other fruits and vegetables: Cherries are one of the richest plant sources of the antioxidant melatonin.  Melatonin is also produced by the pineal gland and is responsible for, among other things, regulating our circadian rhythms. However, a few small studies that have looked at the effects of cherry juice concentrate or powders on sleep quality produced only modest or negligible benefits. 

See also: Can Melatonin Help You Sleep?

The Quick and Dirty on Tart Cherry Juice

If you enjoy the flavor of cherries or cherry juice, they offer plenty of good antioxidant nutrition. But to avoid loading up with too much sugar, I suggest limiting your consumption of fruit to 2-4 servings a day, including a maximum of ½ cup of fruit juice.  My favorite way to enjoy cherry juice is to add a splash to a glass of sparking water. 

See also: Is Fruit Good For You?

If it’s the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant benefits that interest you, there’s no need to limit yourself to cherries. Play the field!  And the best way to ensure a healthy dose of plant-nutrition is not to pop a pill or swig a juice, but to focus on getting those five servings of vegetables a day, in addition to whatever fruit you enjoy.

See also: Can I Get My Vegetables in a Pill?

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