Over the last few years, tart cherry juice has been heralded as a “superfood” containing nutrients that can help critical aspects of our health, including:
- Improve sleep
- Reduce inflammation caused by gout and other forms of arthritis
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Prevent or slow cancer growth
- Improve brain function
But is there enough research to support these claims?
Sources of potential benefits
Tart cherries contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including a significant percentage of the recommended daily intake of vitamins A and C for adults. But their anthocyanins are the source of most of the potential benefits that have so many people talking.
Anthocyanins are the pigments that give red, purple and blue fruits and vegetables their color. Aside from making these foods look pretty, these pigments are also high in antioxidants, which play a key role in destroying harmful cells known as free radicals. These cells occur naturally in our bodies and also come from exposure to various hazards, such as pollution, cigarette smoke and other harmful chemicals.
Antioxidants are also the main reason that professional athletes have even been known to sing the praises of tart cherry juice. They believe it may soothe muscle pain and help reduce inflammation following workouts.
Tart cherries also contain both melatonin – a hormone produced by the brain that controls our sleep-wake cycle – and tryptophan – a protein that helps the body produce melatonin. Because of this, it’s believed that tart cherry juice may also promote better sleep.
What the research says
“There just hasn’t been enough research to confirm these claims about drinking tart cherry juice,” said Ashley Simper, a registered dietitian at OSF HealthCare. “While it’s been studied for years and shows potential, the data is mixed, and most of the results have been produced in labs or come from studies that only apply to specific populations, such as athletes. So, more research is needed to determine if these health claims can be applied to the population as a whole.
“For example, evidence supporting the use of tart cherry juice for sleep improvement is weak. Tart cherries have a very small amount of melatonin, and a single serving of this juice doesn’t provide anywhere close to the melatonin dose that would be required to make an adult feel sleepy.”
Another example is tart cherries’ impact on gout. Gout is a type of arthritis inflammation caused by a high level of uric acid in the blood. It results in severe pain in one or more joints – usually in the big toe. Some research has shown that antioxidant-rich anthocyanins in tart cherries can reduce the amount of uric acid in the body, thereby reducing the flare-ups of gout symptoms. However, more research is needed to determine whether there is enough evidence for using tart cherry juice for inflammation relief related to gout and other forms of arthritis.
Tart cherry juice side effects
What may surprise some folks is that consuming tart cherry juice does have potential side effects. For example, if you’re taking blood thinners, antibiotics or corticosteroids (a type of anti-inflammatory drug), you should talk to your doctor before drinking this juice since it can interact with these and other medications. And if you have diabetes, the juice’s natural sugar content – and any added sugar – can negatively impact your blood sugar level.
Other potential side effects include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Weight gain
The abdominal pain and diarrhea are caused by sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that’s a type of carbohydrate found in some fruits and plants. And weight gain can occur as a result of extra calories from drinking excessive amounts of juice and the added sugar found in many brands of tart cherry juice.
How much tart cherry juice should I drink?
But even after getting the OK from your doctor, Ashley says it’s still important not to overdo it.
“If a person wants to add this juice to their diet, I’d recommend that they avoid drinking it daily and instead drink 8-16 ounces a few times a week,” she said. “They also need to look at each brand’s nutrition label to check the sugar content since some brands are high in added sugar.”
Drink less juice. Eat more fruit.
“It’s also important to remember that while fruits are great sources of fiber, juicing removes all of that fiber, so you’d actually be better off eating tart cherries in their natural fruit form. They can be identified by their bright red color, whereas varieties of sweet cherries tend to be darker,” Ashley said. “The fiber also helps slow the digestion of the fruit’s carbohydrates, which come in the form of natural sugars.”
Want to start eating better?
But don’t limit yourself to just eating tart cherries. The antioxidant benefits of anthocyanins can also be found in many other fruits, vegetables and grains, including:
- Eggplant with the skin on
- Black beans
- Certain varieties of wheat, barley and rice
“It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a single food, but folks need to remember the big picture: a well-balanced diet including a variety of foods helps lead to a healthier lifestyle,” Ashley said.