One of the great joys of summer is the appearance of fresh cherries in local markets. While their growing season is relatively short, the quantity of cherries available in season (usually May to August) is usually great.
Cherries are grown in 20 or more countries, but the United States is still one of the largest producers. Most tart cherries are of the Montmorency variety, and because they are often too tart to eat as is, they are canned, frozen, dried or used in pie fillings, sauces or juices.
U.S. sweet cherries generally come from the Pacific Northwest and are cultivated in even larger numbers, led by the Bing and Lambert varieties. Bing cherries are large, round and quite sweet. They have a purplish flesh and a deep red skin that look almost black when fully ripened. Lamberts are smaller, redder and heart-shaped. .
Now, what's the nutritional payoff? Like all fruits and vegetables, cherries are loaded with nutrients. Sour cherries are higher in vitamin C and lower in calories than sweet ones. Those processed into pie fillings and sauces, however, may have had a lot of sugar added.
Two-thirds of a cup of raw sweet cherries has about 72 calories, 7 milligrams of vitamin C (about 12% of the recommended daily allowance, or RDA) and enough beta carotene to supply 2% of the RDA for vitamin A. By contrast, the same amount of sour cherries has about 17% of the RDA for vitamin C and enough beta carotene to supply 26% of the RDA for vitamin A.
The latest research on cherries is turning up promising information on phytochemicals, in terms of potential anti-cancer activity. In particular, anthocyanins, which are responsible for the dark colorings of fruits such as cherries, are thought to have potent antioxidant properties. None of this makes cherries a miracle food--any more than any other fruit or vegetable is a miracle food. Nor does it mean that the inevitable "cherry extract" products will lead to nutritional or medical miracles. But it does mean that cherries--as part of a balanced, sensible diet high in fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates--will add important nutrients to your system that may have benefits down the road.
Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or firstname.lastname@example.org.