Tart Cherry Juice redux

It’s come to my attention by way of the magic of site statistics that a previous post (4 years old!) about tart cherry juice is quite popular.  Not entirely surprising, because tart cherry juice and other allegedly magical performance-enhancing foods are endlessly fascinating to athletes and couch potatoes alike.  Athletes are always looking for that extra edge, even if it’s only a fraction of a second, since that could be the difference between first and second place in a professional race.  Couch potatoes are always looking for something to make them feel like athletes without the effort.  Exhibit A: sports drinks now used in place of soda pop or juice as a beverage of choice for all occasions.

So let’s review.  What could make tart cherry juice of interest to athletes in search of that extra edge?

Marketing?

Yes.

Research that demonstrated actual benefits?  Maybe.  Sort of.  Keeping in mind, some of this research is funded by or otherwise facilitated by food producers with an interest in selling tart cherries.  This is nothing to be surprised about.  Plenty of the research on the magical powers of blueberries is funded by blueberry producer associations.  Pomegranates, same thing in a big way.  Prunes, almonds, beets and acai are other examples.  You didn’t think scientists sat around their academic offices thinking of foods to single out for research on sports performance, did you?

Why sour cherries?  Because that’s what “tart” cherries are — sour.  Not cherries you’d eat for a snack.  They’re great for pie, heavily sweetened with sugar.  But perhaps the market for pie cherries is not what it used to be, so growers needed some other angle to promote their product, since they already have the trees established, and are harvesting lots of red cherries.  It would be terrible to waste them.   Not to be cynical or anything, but I expect the thinking went something like this:  “Health halos work, let’s look for a health angle.”

In fact, sour cherries are high in a variety of antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, so they make good candidates for this kind of research.  Round up a few athletes, give them some sort of sour cherry beverage or pill and see what happens when they exercise.

For this kind of research you have to use beverages or extracts or capsules of dehydrated food.  It would be impossible to make the subjects eat enough of the actual food every day to expect any difference.  And in fact, selling baskets of actual cherries to bike racers probably wouldn’t go over too well.  They spoil easily.  They have to be depicted.  Messy.  Easier (and more 21st Century techie) to create extracts or drinks or capsules.

Here’s a study from 2010 that perfectly exemplifies what I’m talking about:

Effects of powdered Montmorency tart cherry supplementation on acute endurance exercise performance in aerobically trained individuals

Sounds complicated.  Here’s what happened.  A small group of endurance runners were divided into 2 groups.  One got capsules of powdered tart cherries; one got rice powder.  They took this once a day for 10 days.  Then everyone ran a half-marathon and their times, recovery and indicators of inflammation were measured.  The tart cherry supplement group averaged 13% faster race times.  The group had lower inflammatory markers post-race and reported less soreness in one muscle group.  Hmm.

At the very end of the published study, we find this information:

This study was funded by Anderson Global Group, LLC (Irvine, CA, USA) and Shoreline Fruit, LLC (Traverse City, MI, USA)

Just so you know, the Anderson Global Group makes CherryPURE®, which is tart cherry powder, and the tart cherries used for that powder are from Shoreline Fruit in Traverse City MI.

But wait, you’ll say, they ran 13% faster.  Yes, for this study this small group did.  There were actually some interesting differences between the cherry powder group and the placebo group.  The powder group had less body fat, more body muscle, weighed more (so more mass of muscle) and were slightly younger.  While the statistical analysis didn’t mark any of this as “significant”, I do wonder.  After all, you’re talking about a highly selective group of people here: young highly trained athletes.  On any given race day, any number of things can interfere with someone’s performance that has zero to do with whether they took cherry powder or a placebo.  Nevertheless I’m sure this result will be used to promote cherry powder to athletes; couch potatoes will likely wonder if maybe tart cherry powder could give them some kind of edge, too.

There are plenty of other studies.  Some use tart cherry extract, which is more like a syrup and has to be heavily sweetened to be palatable.  Which means the research subjects are now also ingesting a lot of added sugar every day.  The other catch for all of these studies is that the cherry products have to be used daily, sometimes more than once a day.

Because of the antioxidant and potential anti-inflammatory effect of sour cherries, researchers have investigated the effect on people with arthritis.  According to ConsumerLab (subscription required), results have been mixed, not suggestive that these products have any significant benefit.  But wait, sour cherries contain melatonin, a known sleep inducer.  Maybe they are a sleep aid.  Unfortunately the amount of melatonin in tart cherries is minuscule, so you’d have to use a concentrated extract.  Some minor benefit was observed when an extract was used daily, but garden-variety melatonin supplements might be more effective.

For all of these supposed super foods, the key seems to be that you have to use the powder or extract every day, and continue using them everyday for any benefit.  These are not cures or quick fixes.   And the products are not cheap.  If the promise of an extra edge in a professional race is enticing, you might be tempted to try sour tart cherry powder or extract.  Your choice.  What sounds like a better bet is a big piece of sour cherry pie after the race.

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