Phyt Back! Take Twenty Cherries and Call Me in the Morning

single-rainier-350With piles of them soon to be everywhere—Farmer’s Markets, roadside stands, produce aisles— it will be nearly impossible to miss the fact that cherry season is upon us in the Northwest. What a treat: One bite and glistening red skins burst and release juicy deliciousness onto the tongue, like summer distilled into one distinct flavor! But apart from the gustatory gift that cherries yield, studies are revealing the incredible depth of cancer prevention and other health benefits from cherries. This is especially true of tart or sour cherry varieties such as Montmorency. Of course ‘tart’ and ‘sour’ are relative terms: the descriptions are accurate only when these varieties are compared with their super sweet siblings like Bing or Rainier.

Whether sweet or tart, the concept of cherries as medicinal is certainly not new: Native Americans have been using cherry bark as well as the fruit to treat disorders for centuries. Cherries were particularly prized for their pain-relieving ability, especially for sore throats. Perhaps this is why sore throat lozenges and cough syrups have traditionally been cherry flavored

Phyto Facts: Aspirin on a Stem?
Cherries contain numerous phytonutrients from the anthocyanin family. If the name anthocyanin sounds familiar, it is because this large phyto family shows up in many deeply red, blue or purple fruits and vegetables. It turns out that cherries contain significant amounts of some anthocyanin subtypes that have highly effective pain relieving actions—cyanidin and malvidin. These have been shown to inhibit the same enzyme pathways as NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, Celebrex or Vioxx; namely cyclooxygenase 1 and 2 (COX-1 and COX-2.) These pathways are major drivers of the inflammatory response and blocking them impacts both pain and inflammation. The ability of cyanidins and malvidin to relieve pain and to reduce inflammation has been well-documented. Several studies have shown that twenty dark red cherries have enough anthocyanin (about 25 milligrams) to match the pain relieving potential of an aspirin or ibuprofen. A study from the University of California at Davis showed that biochemical markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein (CRP) were reduced by up to 25% when cherries were consumed for 28 days. This has major implications for cancer prevention as inflammation is a forceful factor in cancer promotion and progression.

single-cherry-350Anthocyanins are also powerful antioxidants, even more powerful than vitamin E. This helps protect DNA from the oxidative damage and reduce the risk of healthy cells transforming to cancer. Anthocyanins—most particularly, cyanidins—also support maintenance of healthy cell life cycles and apoptosis (cell death) in mutated cells, both of which inhibit cancer growth.

Phyt Bite
Since anthocyanins are deep red, blue and purple, it should come as no surprise that the darker the cherry, the higher the anthocyanin content. Choose the darkest red cherries—and go for the ‘tart’ when available. In Washington the tart varieties include Balaton, Danube, Jubelium, Montmorency and Regina. Each of these can be eaten fresh but also work very well in recipes. Processing degrades the phytonutrients in cherries—even freezing can decrease anthocyanin content by over 50% within 6 months so enjoy cherries throughout the season to get maximum benefit. In the following recipe, the cherries are not cooked, so flavor, fun and phytonutrients are maximized. The addition of balsamic vinegar may seem unusual for a dessert but this actually intensifies the fruit flavors.

Sour Cherry Granita


  • 2 pounds fresh pitted sour cherries
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons sugar


  1. Set a bowl under a colander and drain cherries, reserving all the liquid.
  2. Puree cherries in a food processor or blender.
  3. Run the puree through a fine strainer, pressing the cherries with a spoon to extract all the juice. If there are large chunks of cherries in the juice, strain it again.
  4. Add any liquid reserved at the beginning, as well as vinegar to the juice and set aside.
  5. Combine sugar with 2/3 C. water and cook over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Allow this to sit and cool.
  6. Mix juice with sugar syrup and pour into a metal pan large enough to accommodate all the liquids.
  7. Place in freezer for 1 hour, or until ice crystals start to form around edges.
  8. Using a fork, stir the ice into the center of the dish. Place back in freezer.
  9. Continue stirring as described above, approximately once an hour until all liquid has frozen and has a grainy consistency, this usually takes about 5 hours.

Kim Jordan is the Manager of Medical Nutrition Therapy Services at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. 

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