Sweet cherry promoters would like to be able to say  “a bowl of cherries a day will keep cancer away,” but  more research is needed before such claims can be made.

Sweet cherry promoters would like to be able to say “a bowl of cherries a day will keep cancer away,” but more research is needed before such claims can be made.

The Pacific Northwest and California cherry industries are building on past health studies to develop credible research that can be used to promote the healthy side of sweet cherries. Northwest Cherry Growers will spend about $100,000 in the 2011-2012 budget on health research, consistent with its ongoing, long-term commitment to help discover the health benefits of sweet cherries.

There’s been a growing shift at the retail level to focus on the health and nutritional aspects of food, says James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers. “We see this in the ads that are run by retailers and in-store materials that tout the healthfulness of foods, and in the content of stories written by consumer and food media.”

He routinely fields calls from retailers, dieticians, foodservice, and media, asking about the health benefits of sweet cherries.

According to statistics shared by Michael, 78 percent of U.S. retailers are focusing on health and nutrition of foods in their advertising efforts. “An increasing part of our domestic promotion program is to drive the in-store promotion of cherries,” he said. “We don’t want to be just another fresh fruit, but one that’s healthy and has a ­functional aspect.”

He notes that consumer interest in the functionality of foods is beginning to drive consumer purchases, particularly at a time when consumers want to get the most value for their money.

“We want to strengthen our soapbox,” Michael said, but adds that solid, credible research is needed to do so.

For example, preliminary research suggests that a natural compound in Bing cherries might help people who suffer from arthritic inflammation, gout, and because of the fruit’s high anthocyanin levels, cherries may have a role in preventing prostate cancer, the leading cancer in men in the United States. But to be able to use such information in promotional material, more definitive research is needed.

The tart cherry industry has funded several studies on health research and is incorporating scientific evidence in much of its promotional efforts. The Cherry Marketing Institute, representing tart cherry producers, has touted tart cherries as the “Super Fruit” due to the fruit’s high levels of antioxidants, nutrients like beta carotene, melatonin, and anti-inflammatory and heart health benefits. Many of the same compounds are found in sweet ­cherries.

In the future, some of the tart cherry studies may be replicated on sweet cherries to learn if the same health benefits also are found in sweet cherries.

Research projects for 2011

A scientific advisory board, formed by the Washington State Fruit Commission and California Cherry Advisory Board in 2008, has been developing a comprehensive research strategy and guiding the research efforts of the two industry groups. Members of the scientific board include Drs. Darshan Kelley, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Western Human Nutrition Research Center, Davis, California; Cynthia Thomson, University of Arizona; Cheryl Rock, University of California, San Diego; and Andrew Breksa, USDA’s Western Regional Research ­Center, Albany, California.

Based on the scientific board’s recommendations of research priorities, the cherry industry is funding several research projects this year, with the major focus on three studies:

Bioactivity—Frozen plasma samples from a 2006 Bing cherry feeding study on humans have been analyzed for nearly 90 antigens (pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, growth factors, adhesion molecules, clotting factors, hormones, and markers for immune status, including allergies, and cancer). Once completed, the results will establish a better understanding of the bioactivity of sweet cherries, guide future feeding trials or clinical research, and give industry a study it can promote through public relations efforts.

Prostate cancer—A study that found purple carrots could have an effect on reducing the risk of prostate cancer has excited cherry researchers because cherries have higher anthocyanin levels than those of the purple carrots. Studies will begin this summer with at-risk men to better understand the effects of eating cherries on reducing the risk of prostrate cancer.

Standardized cherry replacement product—USDA is collaborating with Van Drunen Farms in Illinois to develop a freeze-dried product that could substitute for cherries when they are out of season and account for fruit variables between variety, region, and season. The need for a year-round product became apparent last summer when the prostrate feeding study had to be postponed until this year due to the short availability of fresh product.

A grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Program has been received to help fund the prostrate cancer project.

Additionally, a comprehensive report published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition summarized all of the sweet cherry health-related research that has recently been conducted around the world. Michael explained that the white paper served as a starting point to identify what’s been done and to interest scientists in future sweet cherry research.

Support for the projects is split between California and Northwest cherry producers, with about two-thirds coming from the Northwest and one-third from California. The two cherry groups appointed a Health and Nutrition Committee to work closely with the scientific board and ­execute the health research strategy.

The scientific board will meet again this fall to review research and strategy progress.

Michael said that as information from the health studies comes out, the cherry industry will develop specific phrases and slogans to share the health message. “Sweet health,” the slogan currently used, has been a good collective term for the health benefits that come from eating cherries, but he said that it doesn’t really give specifics. “In the future, we hope to develop a specific health message that would better convey the benefits. For example, we could have something that shares cherries’ role in preventing ­prostrate cancer.”