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Dr. Cynthia Thomson, registered dietician, advocates that people eat whole fruits and vegetables for health and nutrition instead of relying on dietary supplements.

Dr. Cynthia Thomson, registered dietician, advocates that people eat whole fruits and vegetables for health and nutrition instead of relying on dietary supplements.

In a six-way partnership, sweet cherry growers from the Pacific Coast and Northwest states are joining forces to develop a health research program that will ultimately lead to communicating cherry health benefits to consumers.

The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission will guide the cherry group in developing a health research plan identifying research needs and funding sources, and will assist in coordinating research.

Cherry producers attending a joint meeting of the Washington State Fruit Commission, Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission, and California Cherry Advisory Board held in Yakima, Washington, in January, unanimously agreed to pursue a comprehensive health plan as a joint effort. The Washington State Fruit Commission coordinates cherry promotion work of the Northwest Cherry Growers, which represents cherry producers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana.

Now is the time to seek health research grants, partnerships, and joint funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture and university scientists, said Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Tree Fruit Research Commission. "Specialty crop" is a buzzword in the federal farm bill and Congress, and he believes there is opportunity to develop small grant proposals for research related to health benefits. In recent years, health research has been a major focus of other commodity groups, like the U.S. Apple Association.

The Research Commission has experience in applying political pressure to bring attention to research issues
and in leveraging funds to maximize research dollars, –McFerson said. "That’s what we do."

Since 1969, the Research Commission has collected assessments from Washington tree fruit growers, including cherries, to fund research. For cherries, the research primarily has been related to production issues—pest management, horticultural practices, postharvest quarantine treatments, and such. From 2000 through 2006, the research commission has spent more than $1.75 –million on cherry research.

"But we [Tree Fruit Research Commission] haven’t heard that message of funding health research before from the Washington State Fruit Commission," McFerson said.

Norm Gutzwiler, cherry grower from Malaga, –Washington, thinks that the industry will need a health message in the future. "We’ve got a lot of cherries in the ground."

Sweet health

During 2007, the Northwest Cherry Growers used "Sweet health" in its promotion program, but did not focus on specific health attributes. The health messages shared during in-store video promotions highlighted
that cherries are high in fiber and a great source of –antioxidants, both of which are supported by research.

Dr. Cynthia Thomson, associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona and a registered dietician, recently completed a literature review and evaluation of worldwide cherry health benefit research. Her review was commissioned by the Northwest Cherry Growers.

In presenting her findings at the joint meeting, Thomson said that cherries are a nutrient-dense food containing bioactive food components, such as anthocyanins, quercetin, potassium, hydroxycinnamates, fiber, vitamin C, carotenoids, and melatonin. These compounds suggest health benefits related to prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, inflammatory disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Research conducted on behalf of California cherry growers at the University of California, Davis, suggests that eating fresh Bing cherries can help people who suffer from gout or other forms of arthritic inflammation. But the industry is interested in reaching a broader group
of consumers than just those suffering from gout or –arthritis.

"We know that phytochemicals [bioactive food components] are in cherries," Thomson said. "But it’s likely that other fruits have these phytochemicals as well." Cherries are not the highest source of anthocyanins –compared with other fruits, although they have one of
the highest levels of cyanidin, which is one type of –anthocyanin.

Health can be a powerful driver to increase consumption of a product, she acknowledged, especially for foods that don’t taste that good. "If you hear a health message, taste [which drives us to consume] can be overcome," she said, adding that a study showed that consumers were willing to drink green tea four times a day after they heard about its cancer prevention attributes.

"You have a product that has a taste that can drive consumption independent of a health message," Thomson said.

She believes that health messages are important. "Health messaging is going to move the market. We have hundreds of thousands of people who have chronic –illness, and hundreds of thousands who will get chronic illness. Much of this has to do with diet," Thomson said.

While few Americans can stick to a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet, they can make small, incremental steps, like switching from coffee to green tea once or twice a day, she explained.

She encouraged the cherry industry to develop a message dealing with the whole cherry and its compounds, and not pull out one chemical or one study by itself. The industry must also consider its message compared to those of other fruits. "Do you want to position yourself against tart cherries, blueberries, and other fruits?"

Thomson said that more studies are needed before the industry creates a health message for consumers, including human feeding studies to understand the role of cherry consumption in reducing chronic disease risk and establishing dose-specific guidelines. Such research could take several years.

Andrew Willis, promotion director for the Northwest Cherry Growers, sees great potential to increase cherry sales by promoting the health benefits.

Other commodity groups have had overnight success in sales by promoting health attributes of their fruit, such as blueberries, pomegranates, and green tea. The Midwest tart cherry industry has funded several studies on the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits of tart cherries and is now focusing on health to increase tart cherry consumption.

"I’m so excited about the health side of the message that it drives me crazy," Willis said.