London - George Washington would surely have left his father’s cherry tree undamaged if he knew what scientists are learning today.
For studies reveal that cherries are unusually rich in health-promoting compounds which can trim our tummies, help to prevent heart disease, make exercise easier and even improve our sleep.
So at just less than 100 calories and half a gram of fat per serving, you have every reason to take more than two bites of the cherry.
The humble cherry can take the ouch out of working out thanks to its pain-fighting capabilities.
Dr Kerry Kuehl, a sports medicine specialist at the Oregon Health & Science University, studied 55 runners and found those who drank tart cherry juice while training for a long-distance run experienced considerably less pain after exercise.
Many long-distance runners take painkillers before training in the hope of reducing muscle pain. But Dr Kuehl warns that these drugs can damage their stomachs in the long term.
He says that tart cherries are high in antioxidant compounds called anthocyanins. These give the fruit their bright colour.
But they also have the power to prevent inflammation and subsequent tissue damage in exhausted muscles, reported Dr Kuehl in the Journal of the International Society Of Sports Nutrition in 2010.
Sue Baic, spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, says: “You need to drink tart cherry juice to get the best effect, but eating cherries will surely give you similarbenefits.”
Eating cherries lowers the levels of nitric oxide in your blood. This compound is linked with the development of arthritis.
A study by the Oregon Health & Science University in 2012 found that women with osteoarthritis who drank tart cherry juice twice daily for three weeks had significantly fewer signs of harmful inflammation in their blood. They also suffered 20 percent less pain.
The researchers said that tart cherries have the “highest anti-inflammatory content of any food”.
Sweet cherries have a similar effect because they contain quercetin, a potent antioxidant.
Cherries can also reduce attacks of gout, which is a similar auto-immune condition to arthritis.
A study in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism in 2012 followed 633 gout patients for a year. It found that those who regularly ate 30 cherries a day cut their risk of attacks by more than a third.
In 2013, Chinese researchers fed lab mice anthocyanins purified from sweet cherries, after having previously put the rodents on a high-fat diet. Instead of becoming obese, the mice actually lost around five percent of their body weight, found a report in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. The cherry’s anthocyanins particularly prevented the mice from putting on weight around their bellies.
Similar effects have been found by investigators who fed tart cherry powder to rats on high-fat diets.
Tart cherries have been found to contain high levels of melatonin, a hormone that plays a crucial role in making us feel sleepy and stay asleep.
Studies show up to half of Britons find it hard to nod off. But insomnia is not just a nuisance, it is linked to a higher risk of chronic pain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and a decline in cognitive function.
In 2012, Dr Glyn Howatson the lab director of Northumbria University’s department of sport, gave 20 volunteers either tart cherry juice concentrate to drink for a week, or a placebo drink.
The cherry juice drinkers saw their total sleep time increase by 25 minutes and quality of sleep improve by around six percent.
Urine samples showed that their melatonin levels had also increased significantly.
Dr Howatson says: “We were initially interested in the application of tart cherries in recovery from strenuous exercise. Sleep forms a critical component in that recovery process.
“Drinking tart cherry juice concentrate provides an increase in melatonin that is beneficial in improving sleep duration and quality.”
The anthocyanin found abundantly in cherries may also cut the risk of heart disease.
These anti-inflammatory chemicals have been found in lab studies to reduce heart-damaging inflammation in the body, as well as reducing harmful fats in the bloodstream.
One reason, according to American investigators who reported their findings in the journal Phytomedicine in 2012, is that tart cherry extract appears to work in the stomach in the same way as common statin drugs, such as Lipitor.
Their tests show that the cherry extract reduces an inflammatory chemical called interleukin-6 that is produced by belly fat. This chemical is believed to explain why having a podgy tum puts you at increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Moreover, research in 2013 by the University of Michigan suggests that sour cherries can even reduce the risk of stroke when they are taken with prescribed medications.
The scientists gave cherry extract to rats who were bred to be obese and prone to circulatory disease. The rats had reduced markers of metabolic syndrome - a cluster of traits that can greatly increase your risk of heart disease.