James Michael believes the health benefits of sweet cherries could increase consumption in a big way. He can imagine promoting sweet cherries with the phrase “enjoy a slice of pie made from sweet cherries as a way to improve your health.”
Michael, as vice president of marketing-North America for the Northwest Cherry Growers, knows that with the expansion of cherry acreage in the Pacific Northwest and western states, larger crops are coming.
He’s looking for any angle to increase sales and put cherries in the shopping carts of consumers. And part of that equation includes positioning sweet cherries as a superfruit packed full of healthy compounds. But health messages must be backed by peer-reviewed science and face rigid review and approval.
That’s why funding health research has been a top priority of the Northwest Cherry Growers, the promotional arm for cherry producers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana. The grower group, administered by the Washington State Fruit Commission, has annually budgeted $100,000 for health studies in recent years.
A scientific advisory board was formed in 2008 by cherry industry representatives from Washington, Oregon, and California to help guide the Northwest Cherry Growers through a maze of health research projects and scientific jargon. The board includes nationally recognized scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Arizona, and University of California, San Diego.
Though cherry health research has moved slowly, in part because much of the research must take place when cherries are in season, pieces are beginning to come together.
“The research dollars of Northwest Cherry Growers are finally starting to pay out,” Michael said during an interview with Good Fruit Grower. Moreover, with recent developments in technology and growing interest in the subject, the research pace is picking up.
Last season, Northwest cherries made big news with release of a study led by USDA’s Dr. Darshan Kelley, chemical scientist at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, California. The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that consuming sweet Bing cherries can significantly decrease circulating concentrations of inflammatory biomarkers in the body and help to prevent chronic inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer.
The good news gained notice on a giant reader board in New York’s Times Square and went around the world, picked up by Yahoo-Singapore Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, among others.
“In essence, researchers found that consuming Bing cherries lowered the levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation,” said Michael. Frozen plasma samples from a 2006 Bing eating study were reanalyzed with new technology. The original project studied men and women between the ages of 45 and 61, all of whom had slightly elevated C-reactive protein levels. The participants consumed the equivalent of a handful of cherries three to four times a day.
“Cherries are a natural anti-inflammatory but have a host of other potential benefits,” Michael said (see “Potential health benefits”). Though sweet cherries share some of the same health benefits as tart cherries, they require minimal sugar when making a pie compared to the typical two cups for a tart cherry pie. And because sweet cherries have a low glycemic level of 22 (foods above 70 can cause blood sugar levels to soar), he hopes to prove that a cup of cherries after a meal may be helpful for diabetics. “Eating a slice of sweet cherry pie may truly be good for you,” he said.
One of the initial limitations in sweet cherry research was the fruit’s seasonality. A shelf-stable cherry powder was needed to expand the time frame that feeding studies could be done.
Columbia PhytoTechnology, LLC, of The Dalles, Oregon, recently developed a powder from frozen cherries that will be used in future studies. The powder contains all of the compounds that fresh cherries do. USDA scientists are in the process of developing a placebo to use in studies with cherry powder, a critical next step in trials.
Another positive is the growing interest in cherry health research. For the first time, a Washington State University food scientist, Dr. Giuliana Noratto, will work on the nutrition and health aspects of cherries instead of traditional production issues that other WSU researchers have studied.
Noratto’s research focus at WSU is the role of nutrition in the prevention or progress of obesity-related chronic diseases. Noratto and colleagues at Texas A&M University recently found that compounds in peaches can inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells and their ability to spread.
She will be analyzing a spectrum of cherries—tart, sweet, and blush varieties—in what Michael describes as a “pit to stem” study.
Part of the research process is to explore and apply for research grants to help defray costs. Specialty crop block grants awarded from state agricultural departments are an example of funding options. Michael said initial projects are the building blocks to future research.
“Health research is a step-by-step process, and it’s expensive,” Michael said. •
James Michael’s goal with the results of cherry health research is to capitalize on one of the fastest growing consumer trends of healthy eating. A majority of U.S. retailers are focused on health and nutrition.
In addition to sharing market research information with retailers, Michael, as vice president of marketing-North America for the Northwest Cherry Growers, also communicates how cherries fit into a healthy lifestyle. Promotion efforts target food writers and bloggers, chefs, and others through a variety of channels, including social media and videos.
All fruit groups are looking for the magic health bullet, trying to emulate the success of blueberries and pomegranates, he said.
“Competition is fierce when it comes to health messages. It’s like a professional sport and all of the fruit groups are following the same guidelines, trying to get the consumer’s attention.”
Health messages must be carefully and deliberately chosen. The messages used by Northwest Cherry Growers in last year’s news release were first approved by the USDA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Northwest Cherry Growers was able to tell retailers and others, for example, that consuming sweet Bing cherries can help prevent chronic inflammatory diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer.
“We don’t want to overstate the health benefits, but we also don’t want to limit ourselves,” Michael said. “We don’t want to lead with something like ‘high in anthocyanins’ because once you do that, consumers will never think beyond that message.”