Whether recreational or elite, endurance athletes – like these runners – can see performance improvement from tart cherry juice, according to a number of recent studies.
Photo courtesy of Cherry Bay Orchards

by Courtney Llewellyn

About a month ago, an analysis of 10 previously published studies on tart cherries and exercise recovery showed tart cherry juice consumption works wonders for both recreational and elite athletes. The research suggested benefits in reducing strength loss and improving muscle recovery after intensive exercise.

“With the work with athletes, we found it had a lot of really good results if they had it either before they exercised or in the recovery timeframe,” said Don Gregory of Cherry Bay Orchards. Gregory has been in the fruit-growing industry for over 50 years, and has been involved in tart cherry promotion for a long time too.

Cherry Bay Orchards is part of Shoreline Fruit, a grower-owned supplier of dried fruit, cherry concentrate and powdered nutraceutical products. With Cherry Bay, Gregory grows about 2,500 acres of tart cherries in northern Michigan and another 450 acres in southwest Michigan. He also grows apples and other fruits and is part of a small co-op that pits and sells cherries.

Promoting produce is almost as important these days as actually growing and harvesting it. Growers needs markets. And according to Gregory, tart cherries need to be taken care of soon after harvest. They’re not really a fresh market item, he said. He reviewed their sales history with Country Folks Grower.

“At first, they were canned whole, in water, and then as pie filling. Once we figured out how to do it, then they were flash-frozen,” he said. “That was the way to create stable products in the industry through the 1980s. Because of their tart taste, a lot of sugar was also used in their preservation. They were historically a dessert item.

“I grew up on a dairy farm. With breakfast, you had coffee cake. At lunch, you had a couple cookies. After dinner, you had pie,” he continued. “Now, you really only have dessert when you have company. So cherries had to reinvent themselves.”

Dried fruit, including cherries, became really popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Gregory said that trend led to good growth in the industry – but like any trend, interest eventually started to wane.

“We’ve always worked together to promote, but it became obvious we needed to do something more,” he said of those growing tart cherries. “We decided to start promoting their health benefits.”

Those benefits are likely courtesy of the cyanin in tart cherries, which increase the antioxidant capacity of blood. Cyanin is also found in darker colored foods including blueberries, raspberries, black rice and black soybeans. Ingesting cherries may lead to reduction in inflammation, and other research showed the fruits could also help lower blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol and even result in sleep benefits (due to their melatonin content).

In the 10 studies mentioned above, the average age of study participants ranged from 18 to 34 years old. Most were participants in endurance sports – cyclists, runners and triathletes. After pooling the results from the studies, analysis concluded that tart cherry concentrate in juice or powdered form significantly improved endurance exercise performance when consumed for seven days to 1.5 hours before cycling, swimming or running.

“We fund the research with our products, and we see spikes in sales when the information is released,” Gregory explained. “No one study is the savior of the industry, but we need to continue to get cherries in front of consumers. They want healthy food that tastes good.”

Tart cherry growers have seen challenges of late, including import/export issues and “sugar being almost a dirty word,” Gregory said. “But we are seeing growth in the cherry juice market. For the last few years, tart fruit has been ‘in.’”

And that’s good news for those maintaining the orchards – especially in Michigan, the nation’s leading producer of tart cherries. The state harvests over 90,000 tons of cherries every year.