The Health Benefits of Cherries Are As Sweet As Summer

As if you needed an excuse to eat 'em all season, the health benefits of cherries and their nutrition facts will seal the deal.

Photo: Jordan Vanderzalm/EyeEm/Getty

Putting out a big bowl of cherries is a sure way to show it's summer without explicitly saying it. The puny, pitted produce (say that five times fast) pack a whole lot of good-for-you nutrients (think: antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C) and refreshing flavor into a small package.

Need even more reasons to snack on cherries all season long? No problem. Read on to learn all about the nutrition and benefits of cherries, plus creative ways to use 'em in recipes.

What Are Cherries?

A member of the Rosaceae family, the cherry (which grows on trees, thus the stem) is related to other stereotypical summer staples, such as plums, peaches, and nectarines — all of which, BTW, are also considered stone fruits. Most varieties of cherries range in color from bright red to almost purple, but some (e.g. those grown in Washington) have a yellowish hue. On that note, there are two main types of cherries in the U.S.: sweet, which tend to have a deep red-to-purple appearance and hail from the Northwest and California, and sour or tart, which typically boast a bright red color and come from Michigan, according to James Michael, vice president of marketing — North America for Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission.

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Cherry Nutrition Facts

Whether you're a fan of the sour variety or prefer the sweet, the nutritional value of cherries need not be overlooked. See, the stone fruit is low in calories, yet rich in vital nutrients including fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, says Kristin Gillespie, M.S., R.D., C.N.S.C., a Virginia-based registered dietitian. And while both types of cherries are also loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants (and boast the same overall benefits), they differ slightly in their nutritional content.

Here's the nutritional profile of one cup of sweet raw cherries without pits (~154 grams), according to the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • 97 calories
  • 1.6 grams protein
  • 0.3 grams fat
  • 25 grams carbohydrates
  • 3 grams fiber
  • 20 grams sugar

Sour cherries, on the other hand, are slightly lower in calories, sugar, fiber, and carbohydrates than their sweet counterpart. Here, a nutritional snapshot of one cup of sour raw cherries without pits (~155 grams), according to the USDA:

  • 77.5 calories
  • 1.6 grams protein
  • 0.5 grams fat
  • 19 grams carbohydrates
  • 2.5 grams fiber
  • 13 grams sugar

Health Benefits of Cherries

Reduce Blood Sugar

Although cherries are high in carbs, they rank lower than many other fruits on the glycemic index, meaning they won't instigate major spikes in blood sugar and insulin, says Heather Hall, R.D.N., a Nevada-based registered dietitian. This is kind of a big deal given that, according to Hall, about half of the world's population is now insulin resistant, which is essentially when your body "begin[s] to ignore insulin." This causes your pancreas to produce even more insulin — the hormone that controls how the food you eat is changed into energy — thereby increasing your insulin or blood sugar levels, she explains. And, ICYDK, the higher your blood sugar levels, the higher your risk for developing diabetes. Now, if you replace some of the high-glycemic foods (such as anything high in sugar and flour) you're eating with low-glycemic ones (such as cherries), you can begin to reduce blood sugar and, in turn, protect against diabetes, adds Hall. (BTW, did you know that patients with PCOS often deal with insulin resistance, too?)

Reduce Inflammation

Not only are cherries rich in polyphenols and vitamin C — both of which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — but they're also loaded with anthocyanins. (And this is especially true for sour cherries, according to research.) Anyway, anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments that lend cherries their red color and act as an antioxidant in removing free radicals, says Kelitha T. Anderson, R.D.N., L.D.N., a Miami-based registered dietitian nutritionist. Here's why this matters: By acting as "police officers within the body to maintain safety and order," anthocyanins in cherries help fight off free radicals (aka unstable molecules) that can cause cell damage and ultimately, chronic inflammation, explains Anderson. (And guess what? For all the reasons cherries help to reduce inflammation, they're also a great food to eat when you're coming off a migraine.)

Decrease Muscle Soreness

Ever wondered why so many people sip on tart cherry juice before they sweat? Well, it's because research suggests the beverage can actually ease muscle soreness after an intense workout. Those helpful anthocyanins in cherries can aid in removing free radicals and in turn, lessen oxidative damage caused by exercise that cause muscle soreness, explains Anderson.

Ease Arthritis Symptoms

Due largely in part to their anti-inflammatory properties, cherries can reduce symptoms of arthritis as well as gout, says Gillepsie. (FYI — gout's a type of arthritis characterized by sudden, severe joint pain resulting from a build-up of uric acid in the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In a 2013 study nondiabetic patients who drank two 8-ounce bottles of tart cherry juice per day for six weeks experienced symptom relief for mild to moderate osteoarthritis symptoms. And in another study from 2012, patients who ate cherries over a two-day period showed a 35 percent lower risk of gout attacks compared to those who did not eat the fruit.

Increase Cancer-Fighting Abilities

Consuming cherries has been shown to improve a body's ability to fight off the growth of cancerous cells, especially in the colon, prostate, breast, and ovarian cancer, according to a 2018 review. "This is due to the actions of fiber, vitamin C, and anthocyanins, among other properties, says Carrie Lam. M.D., a board-certified family, anti-aging, and regenerative medicine physician in California. Let's begin with the latter: Anthocyanins and vitamin C in cherries are known to have antioxidant properties, which, again, fight or neutralize free radicals and, in doing so, protect the body from oxidative stress. This is key because high levels of oxidative stress can damage cells and DNA, contributing to the development of conditions such as, you guessed it, cancer. Then there's the fiber, which not only helps keep your digestive system running smoothly but has also been linked to reduced risk of colorectal and breast cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, which, along with Dr. Lam, recommends adding cherries to your diet, especially if you have a family history of these cancers.

Improve Sleep

Cherries are one of the few foods that naturally contain melatonin, the hormone that helps control your sleep-wake cycle sleep, says Hall. Both sweet and sour cherries have melatonin benefits, along with cherry products. For instance, tart cherry juice, made from sour cherries (which contain the highest amount of melatonin, says Hall), has been shown to improve insomnia and lead to longer, deeper sleep. However, chugging a glass right before bed may not be helpful, says Hall, because of its high sugar content. (And, let's be honest, the fact that you might be kept up peeing.) Unfortunately, the amount of actual fresh cherries you'll need to eat to experience the effects of melatonin is unclear, as a majority of the studies around sleep have tested cherry products, according to Hall.

Cherry Risks

A word of caution if you're feasting on fresh raw cherries: Watch out for the pits, which can be a choking hazard (especially for young children) or result in a big old toothache if you bite down hard into one. And those aren't the only reasons to remove the pit before popping a juicy orb in your mouth. Cherry pits also naturally contain a toxic chemical called amygdalin that can be converted into poisonous cyanide in the body when crushed and consumed, says Anderson.

Accidentally ingest a small pit? It's not as alarming as you might think, says Anderson. "Rest assured, ingesting a small pit unintentionally won't cause harm," she explains. You can, however, invest in a pitter to be extra safe.

How to Pick, Prepare, and Eat Cherries

Though cherries are commonly consumed fresh, they're also available frozen, canned or jarred, and as juice. You can find fresh cherries at grocery stores or at farmer's markets during the summer, so scoop 'em up when you see them, as the season is short (typically June-August, according to Michael). Other times of the year, you'll need to find them in the freezer section or as a processed product.

When you're shopping for fresh cherries, look for fruit that's firm and has shiny, smooth skin along with green, flexible stems, advises Michael. With the exception of yellow Rainier cherries (the ones from Washington), the darker the color, the sweeter the flavor of the fruit, he adds. Once you snagged your bunch of cherries, wash them under cold water to remove any residual dirt from being picked, according to the USDA. Not yet ready to eat them? Save the cleaning routine until snack time. Instead, store them uncovered and unwashed (as moisture can increase the rate of spoilage) in the refrigerator and eat within three to five days, according to the Utah State University Cooperative Extension.

Keep in mind that while products such as canned cherries, including pie filling, are still cherries, they're often loaded with added sugar. Aim to consume fresh cherries whenever possible; when out of season, look for frozen sweet or sour cherries with no sugar added or canned cherries in water instead of syrup. And when it comes to reaping the aforementioned health benefits of cherries, Hall emphasizes that whenever a food is processed, such as when heating it to make pie filling, it loses nutrients and antioxidants.

Now that you know when and how to shop for cherries, it's time to add this nutritional powerhouse to your meals.

Cherry Recipe Ideas

Mixed into oatmeal. Add chopped cherries to a bowl of oatmeal for an even more satiating breakfast (thanks to the fruit's fiber, of course). You can also slice them up and serve atop a piece of toast for an easy a.m. nosh, suggests Sarah Schlichter, R.D.N., a Maryland-based registered dietitian nutritionist.

As a salad topper. Cherries are a delicious addition to any type of salad. Or ditch the idea of greens entirely and toss the fruit (remember to de-pit first!) into a quinoa bowl alongside some smoked almonds.

Made into jam. Cook down cherries to make jam, then spread on sandwiches or incorporate into a marinade for meat, recommends Schlichter.

In smoothies. Cherries paired with Greek yogurt or blended into a smoothie make for a good post-workout snack that'll help build muscle thanks to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the cherries and the protein of the yogurt, says Anderson.

On kabobs. Bite-sized pieces of pork tenderloin pair perfectly with sweet cherries in this cherry and pork skewers with cherry rosemary sauce from The Produce Moms.

Added to trail mix. Toss dried cherries into a homemade trail mix of nuts and seeds for a nourishing, satiating snack, says Anderson. (See also: Is Dried Fruit Healthy?)

Paired with chocolate. Cherries and dark chocolate are a match made in heaven, says Schlichter. Add some pitted chopped cherries and dark chocolate chips to a bowl and top with fresh whipped cream for a super easy, delectable treat.

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