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Why Is the FDA Picking On Cherries?

March 2006

The Truth About Cherries

Let's slice through the cobbler and look at some cherry science. First, the USDA-funded studies determined that:

  • cherries have a low glycemic index;
  • cherries are fat-free, sodium-free, and high in vitamins C, B6, E, and folic acid;
  • cherries rate high on the ORAC antioxidant scale (128 units per gram).

The sellers of cherry products would also like people to know that cherries can relieve arthritis pain and may be good for blood sugar. Are these statements true?

In 2004, researchers from Johns Hopkins Hospital reported that phytocompounds in tart cherries suppress pain caused by inflammation about as well as the drug Indocin® (indomethacin).7 Indocin® is a powerful nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that can cause many side effects. The Hopkins report on tart cherries confirms reports from other countries showing that the same substance that makes cherries red makes inflammation subside.8-13 That substance is called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are related to proanthocyanidins found in grapes and other berries, but they're not the same thing. Anthocyanins are the red pigment in berries. They also make blueberries purple and blue corn blue. Anthocyanins (and there are many) compare favorably to ibuprofen and naproxen for pain relief.12,13 Except for the Johns Hopkins study, which was done on rodents, most studies show the effects of anthocyanins in cells, not clinical effects in people. Do they work in humans as well as they do in rats?

The cherry industry gets letters saying things like, "I have been using the cherry concentrate for my extremely debilitating fibromyalgia pain for about three weeks and have noticed a significant difference." Is it true? Is it false? Who should be the judge? The FDA says it, the agency, should be the judge of the validity of such statements-that it will decide what's healthy and what's not healthy, not the consumer. I asked the Food and Drug Administration if it could tell us about any adverse reactions being reported for cherry products. I was instructed to file a request for that information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cherries and Melatonin

In 2001, a leading researcher reported that tart cherries contain relatively high levels of melatonin, a natural factor previously associated with sleep but now known to be a factor in immunity and much more.14-17 A recent study shows how important melatonin is to health. For the first time ever, researchers report that people who have heart attacks have very low levels of melatonin. At the same time, they have very high levels of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) when measured at night.18

Eating cherries increases levels of melatonin. Researchers in Spain, China, and other countries have documented that melatonin suppresses cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), which plays a role in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease where it does damage, yet augments COX-2 in situations where it's needed, such as healing stomach ulcers.19-22 In other words, melatonin is a "smart" compound in cherries.

Fast-Acting Phytochemicals in Cherries

Anthocyanins in cabernet sauvignon grapes reach the brain within minutes of ingestion.23 Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants. Could this be why people in Bordeaux, France, who drink three to four glasses of wine a day can reduce their risk of Alzheimer's disease by 70%?24 Yes, says another study-flavonoids slash the risk of dementia by half (cherry anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid).25

And by accident, another potential benefit has been discovered. While looking for something in seeds that might cause Parkinson's disease, researchers in New Jersey instead found that eating plums may prevent it-reducing risk by 76%.26 Is it the anthocyanins again?

USDA researchers at Tufts University confirm that anthocyanins cross the blood-brain barrier. They fed them to aging rodents and were able to track exactly which part of the brain the anthocyanins ended up in.27 Further, they showed that animals that were given anthocyanins in their diet could get out of water faster and better than those that were not given anthocyanins.27 When the animals were tricked by the exit ramp being moved, anthocyanins reduced confusion and slowness. It's believed that anthocyanins actually made the brain work better. This government-sponsored research documents that factors in cherries go far beyond simply protecting against free radicals.

Anthocyanins protect against free radicals related to proteins as well as those related to lipids.28 This means that cherries can protect heart muscle, skin, arteries, the fluid in joints, and more. It's "noteworthy" that although tomatoes are also red, their color comes from a different source. Their pigment is lycopene, a type of carotenoid. Lycopene blocks fat-related free radicals such as those that damage LDL.29

Unhealthy Politics

The FDA has a legitimate interest in protecting the public from dangerous drugs and adulterated food. On any given day, it might decide, for example, that the danger of developing life-threatening liver failure from use of an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder drug called Cylert® outweighs the benefits (as it recently did). Or it might get a mislabeled anticoagulant monitoring unit called VeriCal® Calibrator Set off the shelves, as it also recently did. The mistakes and potential disasters are many-antibiotics put into the wrong capsules, asthma inhalants containing nothing but air-these and more have been intercepted by the agency.

But cherries? Given their potential benefits and lack of toxicity, it's reasonable to ask why the agency is spending enormous public resources threatening Michigan's cherry growers. The recent explosion of FDA-approved killer drugs suggests that the agency's overzealous approach to cherry products might be better directed at pharmaceutical manufacturers whose products are one of the leading causes of death in America. Adverse drug reactions cause more than 100,000 fatalities each year and send a million and a half people to the hospital annually.30 Those are the documented cases; the actual number of people who become sick, hospitalized, or die from drugs is unknown.31 Resources might be better spent requiring that drug manufacturers warn people that statin drugs deplete coenzyme Q10, which can cause deadly complications-something the agency recently refused to do.

At the same time the agency sent warning letters to people selling cherry products, it was poised to approve another new, potentially dangerous drug called Pargluva™. That approval has been suspended because concerned researchers at the Cleveland Clinic reevaluated the manufacturer's data and found that it increased the risk of dying 300%, and the Journal of the American Medical Association had the fortitude to publish those findings.32,33


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8. Hou DX, Yanagita T, Uto T, Masuzaki S, Fujii M. Anthocyanidins inhibit cyclooxygenase-2 expression in LPS-evoked macrophages: structure-activity relationship and molecular mechanisms involved. Biochem Pharmacol. 2005 Aug 1;70(3):417-25.

9. Ueda H, Yamazaki C, Yamazaki M. A hydroxyl group of flavonoids affects oral anti-inflammatory activity and inhibition of systemic tumor necrosis factor-alpha production. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2004 Jan;68(1):119-25.

10. Rossi A, Serraino I, Dugo P, et al. Protective effects of anthocyanins from blackberry in a rat model of acute lung inflammation. Free Radic Res. 2003 Aug;37(8):891-900.

11. Wang H, Nair MG, Strasburg GM, et al. Antioxidant and antiinflammatory activities of anthocyanins and their aglycon, cyanidin, from tart cherries. J Nat Prod. 1999 Feb;62(2):294-6.

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17. Baydas G, Reiter RJ, Akbulut M, Tuzcu M, Tamer S. Melatonin inhibits neural apoptosis induced by homocysteine in hippocampus of rats via inhibition of cytochrome c translocation and caspase-3 activation and by regulating pro- and anti-apoptotic protein levels. Neuroscience. 2005;135(3):879-86.

18. Dominguez-Rodriguez A, breu-Gonzalez P, Garcia-Gonzalez M, et al. Elevated levels of oxidized low-density lipoprotein and impaired nocturnal synthesis of melatonin in patients with myocardial infarction. Atherosclerosis. 2005 May;180(1):101-5.

19. Hattori A, Migitaka H, Iigo M, et al. Identification of melatonin in plants and its effects on plasma melatonin levels and binding to melatonin receptors in vertebrates. Biochem Mol Biol Int. 1995 Mar;35(3):627-34.

20. Mayo JC, Sainz RM, Tan DX, et al. Anti-inflammatory actions of melatonin and its metabolites, N1-acetyl-N2-formyl-5-methoxykynuramine (AFMK) and N1-acetyl-5-methoxykynuramine (AMK), in macrophages. J Neuroimmunol. 2005 Aug;165(1-2):139-49.

21. Konturek SJ, Konturek PC, Brzozowski T. Prostaglandins and ulcer healing. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2005 Sep;56 Suppl 55-31.

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24. Letenneur L. Risk of dementia and alcohol and wine consumption: a review of recent results. Biol Res. 2004;37(2):189-93.

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28. Viljanen K, Kylli P, Hubbermann EM, Schwarz K, Heinonen M. Anthocyanin antioxidant activity and partition behavior in whey protein emulsion. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Mar 23;53(6):2022-7.

29. Visioli F, Riso P, Grande S, Galli C, Porrini M. Protective activity of tomato products on in vivo markers of lipid oxidation. Eur J Nutr. 2003 Aug;42(4):201-6.

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