For the past few years, one of the trendiest trends in the alternative-health universe has been dietary supplements made from sour (tart) cherries. They’re particularly popular with athletes and arthritis sufferers.
What does the product supposedly do?
Cherry supplements supposedly work as anti-inflammatories, helping to relieve joint pain and muscle soreness without the side effects of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and other over-the-counter remedies. Some are marketed as effective treatments for gout. A few companies take it a step farther by claiming their cherry supplements are diet aids or can lower cholesterol. Both claims lack strong evidence. A single rat study ties cherry juice to weight loss (1), and one study found a 26% cholesterol decrease in mice fed cherry powder (2)
One company’s advertisement touts two studies by Winona State University’s Dr.
Farnsworth Gary Kastello, which found that two cherry products reduced muscle soreness after exercise…if taken for sixteen days prior to exercising. The problem with these results is that the studies were not double-blind, controlled studies; the participants took only the cherry supplements and were aware that these products were the focus of the study. Furthermore, the results have not appeared in any peer-reviewed publication. Buh-bye, scientific validity.
There are a few studies indicating that runners who drink cherry juice exhibit reduced isometric stress, oxidative stress, inflammation, pain and strength loss, but the number of participants in each study is so incredibly small (14-54) that the results are really not helpful. (3)
The only other evidence of cherry-supplement efficacy is anecdotal. Company websites and Facebook pages overflow with glowing testimonials from customers, like this one: “Since taking your cherry supplements, … I cured myself. I believe prayer, diet, and your cherry supplements have put my body back on a healthy track.”
What’s the active ingredient?
In sour cherries, the anti-inflammatory component is cyanidin, a kind of anthocyanidin.
Many companies also tout the antioxidants in their cherry-based products, though that isn’t necessarily as awesome as we might think it is.
Does it work as advertised?
While it’s true that sour cherries have anti-inflammatory properties (as shown by numerous legit studies conducted in the past 10 years), the big question is: Do cherry supplements offer the same benefits as the fruit? The answer is
To date, no comparison studies have been conducted. Generally speaking, though, actual food is usually a more efficient source of nutrients than supplements derived from that food (in some cases, the processing of food to create supplements can even compromise or destroy the active ingredient). (4)
The FDA has sent warning letters to numerous producers of cherry products (drinks, tablets, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with any of these products. The problem is in the labeling. Once you begin to claim curative powers for your food products, you’re automatically selling a drug – and the FDA has yet to approve any cherry-based product as a drug. It’s one thing to sell cherry juice, and quite another to say your cherry juice is an effective treatment for arthritis.
So what’s the problem?
There is simply no reason to accept, at this point, that any of the bottled cherry products are superior to the real thing. There is no scientific evidence that cherry supplements offer the same potential benefits as plain old sour cherries, and the price of a bottle of cherry juice or cherry pills is considerably higher than a bag of fresh sour cherries, even if they’re out of season. Example: One company offers 60 dried tart cherry capsules for $18.95. Fresh tart cherries rarely exceed $1/lb (US), and 20 of these cherries can have the same effect as a tablet of ibuprofen or aspirin. (4)
So if you’re buying into the supplement hype based on testimonials and a handful of dodgy studies, you might just be a
Thanks to Renee @ The Skeptic Project for directing me to most of the info in this post!
1. Seymour EM, Lewis, SK, Urcuyo-Llanes, DE, Kirakosyan A, Kaufman PB, Bolling SF. (2009) Regular Tart Cherry Intake Alters Abdominal Adiposity, Adipose Gene Transcription and Inflammation in Obesity-Prone Rats Fed a High Fat Diet. J Med Food 12(5):935-42.
2. Seymour EM, Kondoleon MG, Huang MG, Kirakosyan A, Kaufman PB, Bolling SF. FASEB Journal. 2011.
3. – Howatson G et al. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 12 2010, vol./is. 20/6(843-52), 0905-7188;1600-0838
– Connolly D et al. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006; 40: 679-683
4. “Basics on Sour Cherries” by Karen Ravn (Los Angeles Times. July 14, 2012)