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A scientific advisory board assembled on behalf of Pacific Coast and Northwest cherry groups has identified what’s needed in a health research program that could eventually provide cherry growers with consumer health benefit information. The hard part now will be finding ways to fund such a program.

The Northwest Cherry Growers, representing cherry producers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana, and the California Cherry Advisory Board agreed last year to pursue a comprehensive health plan as a joint effort after meeting in Yakima, Washington, and listening to a review of research literature on sweet cherries conducted by Dr. Cynthia Thomson.

Northwest Cherry Growers commissioned Thomson’s review of worldwide cherry health benefit research. Thomson, a registered dietician and nutrition professor at the University of Arizona, found that cherries contain bioactive food compounds that could provide health benefits related to a host of ills, from diabetes and inflammatory diseases to prevention of cancer and Alzheimer’s. But she concluded that more studies were needed before a health message for cherries could be created.

Several years ago, Bing cherries made the news after results were released from preliminary research co-investigated by Dr. Darshan Kelley, adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis, and chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis. The research—apparently the first to test key inflammatory disease indicators (markers) in blood samples from healthy volunteers eating Bing cherries—suggested that some natural compounds in Bing cherries may help people who suffer from gout or other forms of arthritic inflammation. A follow-up study involved more people, more cherries, and a greater array of inflammatory markers. The California Cherry Advisory Board helped fund the follow-up research.

The tart cherry industry has funded several studies on health benefits and is focusing on health to help increase tart cherry consumption.

Research needs

To begin work in the health benefit arena, the Washington State Fruit Commission, representing the Northwest cherry industry, and the California Cherry Advisory Board formed a scientific advisory board to help guide the sweet cherry industry as it answers research-related questions and identifies what is needed in a health benefits research program. The scientific advisory board, chosen from university researchers and academics involved with cherry research, met in early March in Seattle, Washington.

Participants of the scientific meeting included Dr. Andrew Breksa, research chemist at the USDA-ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California; Kelley; Thomson; Dr. Cheryl Rock, School of Medicine professor at University of California, San Diego; representatives of the Washington State Fruit Commission; and Mike Rucier of the consulting firm Bryant Christie, Inc., who served as facilitator.

The scientific advisory board recommended eight areas of future research, highlighting two priority areas:

1. Rules-Based Medicine study—Scientisits would study previously collected blood samples from the Bing cherries feeding study to determine markers in fresh sweet cherries that are tied to the prevention and reversal of chronic inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, diabetes, immune status, and cancer.

2. Create a "proxy" for fresh cherries—A standardized product, such as freeze-dried, powdered cherries, would be developed to aid future research. One of the biggest challenges to sweet cherry research is obtaining a standardized shelf-stable product that is available throughout the year. The seasonality of sweet cherries limits when and how studies can be conducted.

Other future research projects that could build on previous cherry work include chemical analysis of fruit, dose response study, feeding trials, gene array sample, epidemiological study (using retro data analysis), and clinical studies.

Value

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Fruit Commission, shared the scientific advisory board’s recommendations during the Fruit Commission’s March board of directors’ meeting.

Thurlby said that of the sweet cherry studies, the published work of Kelley at ARS has been some of the most compelling research and has generated excitement and publicity in the media. He believes that communicating health benefits of sweet cherries could help differentiate cherries from competing products of blueberries, pomegranates, and almonds—products that are using health benefits to drive demand and increase consumption.

Health benefits could give additional value to the consumer beyond just the taste of the cherry, said Andrew Willis, domestic marketing director for the Fruit Commission. "It may give the consumer an additional reason to purchase our product if they are making lifestyle choices and eating cherries also because they are healthy."

Fruit Commission board member Don Olmstead, cherry grower from Grandview, expressed support for cherry health benefit research and believes such work—though it could take many years—will be "very valuable to the cherry industry."

Funding

Ideally, funding of ongoing health benefits research would be a line item, Thurlby told the Fruit Commission board. It’s not a one-time issue, but represents several years of commitment and could require upwards of $100,000 initially.

Both the Fruit Commission and the California Cherry Board were unsuccessful in receiving grants to help fund initial research, but they are continuing to look for funding avenues.

"The California Cherry Advisory Board is committed to the concept," Jim Culbertson, executive director of the California group, said in a telephone interview. He added that the California cherry producers are planning to fund research in some fashion and look forward to working with Northwest cherry growers, though at press time for Good Fruit Grower, they had not yet reviewed specific research recommendations of the scientific advisory board.

The Fruit Commission board discussed several funding options, from using funds within the current budget to increasing grower assessments in the future. Funding for health benefits research will be discussed at a later date when more is known about the 2009 Northwest cherry crop size. In 2008, the crop was 9.7 million boxes, down significantly from an average of 14.4 million boxes for the previous two years.