Frozen cherries are a convenient and delicious ingredient to use in making healthy desserts. And they come pitted so you don’t have to attempt to cut open each cherry and systematically remove the seed! But what I didn’t realize about cherries is that they have recently received attention as a ‘functional food’ due to their high levels of bioactive compounds, including the antioxidants melatonin, carotenoids, anthocyanins and the flavonol quercetin (1). I am wary of this term ‘functional food’ as there is not always sufficient scientific evidence to support this claim, however, the phytochemicals in cherries seem to have some potentially beneficial effects.
The antioxidants found in cherries have been shown in studies to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, reduce pain and inhibit uric acid production, which may contribute to the development of gouty arthritis. These studies were mostly conducted in animals. One randomized clinical trial conducted in 2011 looked at the impact of tart cherry juice on osteoarthritis of the knee in 58 patients (2). While the patients in this study consuming the cherry juice did not report improvements in pain, stiffness and function compared to the patients consuming the placebo, there was a reduction in the levels of high sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) in those patients consuming the cherry juice. hsCRP levels are elevated in patients with knee osteoarthritis and associated with worse outcomes.
As an endurance athlete I was more interested in the studies conducted on cherry supplementation and its effects on recovery from exercise. Tart cherry juice supplementation has been found to reduce the symptoms of muscle damage in subjects performing contractions of the elbow flexors (3), in subjects performing knee extensor exercises (4) and following marathon running (5).
Exercise increases the production of reactive oxygen/nitrogen species (RONS), commonly referred to as free radicals. The production of these free radicals can result in a reduction in physical performance and cause muscle fatigue. A moderate increase in oxidative stress may actually be beneficial to the exercising muscle, however, excessive levels may reduce muscle function. Because of the antioxidants present in cherries, supplementation with cherry juice has been investigated for its influence on oxidative stress following exercise. The study I mentioned earlier looking at the effects of cherry juice supplementation on recovery from a marathon (5) found that participants who consumed tart cherry juice twice per day for 5 days prior to a marathon and 48 hours following a marathon had lower levels of markers of oxidative stress compared to participants consuming a placebo. However, this study included only 20 participants.
So there is some evidence that cherry juice supplementation can counteract the oxidative stress induced by exercise and the proposed mechanisms for this action include: (a) free radical scavenging; (b) the formation of DNA complexes that are resistant to oxidative stress; and (c) the activation of protective responses, such as our body’s own antioxidants (6). It is not clear which of these mechanisms is responsible, or if it is combination of all three.
In addition to the potential recovery benefits provided by cherries, frozen pitted cherries can be used to make incredibly tasty and easy desserts, such as this Cherry ripe ‘ice cream’ made with shredded coconut, frozen coconut milk, cocoa powder and sweetened with erythritol. I added in some walnuts for extra crunch. Enjoy this as a treat after a hard training session, or just as a healthy dessert on a Friday night.
Cherry ripe ‘ice cream’
Makes 2 serves
1 cup shredded coconut
Ice cube tray filled with coconut milk, frozen
Extra ¾ cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon erythritol
¾ cup frozen pitted cherries
¼ cup walnuts (optional but adds a nice crunch)
Ice cube tray
Measuring cups and spoons
Food processor or high-speed blender
- Freeze the coconut milk in an ice cube tray at least 2 hours in advance.
- Add the shredded coconut to a food processor or high-speed blender. Process/blend until the coconut becomes a firm paste. Scrape the sides of the food processor/blender during this process (you don’t want the coconut to get to the consistency of coconut butter – leave it firmer for a better texture).
- Add in the frozen cubes of coconut milk and process/blend until the mixture is fairly smooth.
- Add in the extra coconut milk, cocoa powder, vanilla extract and erythritol and process until all the ingredients are combined well and the ‘ice cream’ has a smooth consistency.
- Add the frozen pitted cherries and walnuts and process for 1 – 2 minutes until the cherries and walnuts are roughly chopped.
- Divide the ‘ice cream’ between two bowls and freeze for 30 – 60 minutes before serving.
- McCune LM, Kubota C, Stendell-Hollis NR, & Thomson CA (2011) Cherries and health: a review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 51(1):1-12.
- Schumacher HR, et al. (2013) Randomized double-blind crossover study of the efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. Osteoarthritis and cartilage / OARS, Osteoarthritis Research Society 21(8):1035-1041.
- Connolly DA, McHugh MP, Padilla-Zakour OI, Carlson L, & Sayers SP (2006) Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. British journal of sports medicine 40(8):679-683; discussion 683.
- Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fox P, & Mileva KN (2011) Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 43(8):1544-1551.
- Howatson G, et al. (2010) Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 20(6):843-852.
- Traustadottir T, et al. (2009) Tart cherry juice decreases oxidative stress in healthy older men and women. The Journal of nutrition 139(10):1896-1900.