We’re not talking about the candied red cherries that adorn ice cream sundaes and cocktails (sorry Old Fashioned lovers). Their healthier counterparts found in the produce section can have some serious benefits! Natural cherries are stone fruits, close relatives of plums and peaches, and come in two general varieties: sweet and sour — and both kinds pack a nutritional punch for a small amount of calories. Enjoy one cup of cherries for only 90 calories and a variety of nutrients such as fiber, protein, vitamin A and vitamin C. (Hello, swimsuit season!)

Sweet n’ Sour — Why They’re Super

Photo by Caitlin Covington

Antioxidants called anthocyanins give cherries their crimson color, so the richer the hue, the more abundant the benefits (as goes for most fruits and veggies). And this may be a reason for gym-goers to celebrate — some studies show anthocyanins may help aid in muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. In one study, runners who drank two cups of tart cherry juice before and after a marathon recovered their strength more rapidly than those who didn’t juice-upInfluence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Howatson, G., McHugh, M.P., Hill, J.A., et al. School of Psychology and Sport Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2010 Dec;20(6):843-52.. Although it hasn’t been shown to improve performance, runners who drank cherry juice also reported less muscle pain after their workoutsEfficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. Kuehl, K.S., Perrier, E.T., Elliot, D.L., et al. Department of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR, USA. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010 May 7;7:17.. Sweet and tart cherries have a natural anti-inflammatory effect that reduces swelling in exhausted muscles, so for workout woes and even regular aches and pains, consider giving cherries a shot before turning to pillsConsumption of Bing sweet cherries lowers circulating concentrations of inflammation markers in healthy men and women. Kelley, D.S., Rasooly, R., Jacob, R.A., et al. U.S. Department of Agriculture/ARS, Western Regional Research Center, Department of Nutrition University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA. The Journal of Nutrition, 2006 Apr;136(4):981-6.Efficacy of tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Connolly, D.A., McHugh, M.P, Padilla-Zakour, O.I, et al. Human Performance Laboratory, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405, USA. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 Aug;40(8):679-83.. To add to the list, the anti-inflammatory effects may also help prevent arthritis, gout, and even diabetes and heart disease. In fact, several studies (on rats) indicated cherry consumption lead to lower blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (two leading causes of heart disease)Consumption of cherries lowers plasma urate in healthy women. Jacob, R.A., Spinozzi, G.M., Simon, V.A., et al. U.S. Department of Agriculture/ARS Western Human Nutrition Research Center, University of California at Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA. The Journal of Nutrition, 2003 Jun;133(6):1826-9.Regular tart cherry intake alters abdominal adiposity, adipose gene transcription, and inflammation in obesity-prone rats fed a high fat diet. Seymour, E.M., Lewish, S.K., Urcuyo-Llanes, D.E., et al. Michigan Integrative Medicine Program and Section of Cardiac Surgery, University of Michigan health System, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA. Journal of Medicinal Food, 2009 oct;12(5):935-42.Anti diabetic effect of cherries in alloxan induced diabetic rats. Lachin, T., Rexa, H. Department of Biology, Urmia University, Urmia, Iran. Recent Patents on Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Drug Discovery, 2012 Jan;6(1):67-72.. Cherries may even help improve the time spent between the sheets. (Get that mind out of the gutter — we’re referring to sleep!) These super fruits contain the hormone melatonin, which the body produces naturally to control sleep and wake cycles — although additional melatonin may improve sleep quality. Studies suggest cherry consumption may help people sleep longer, better, and wake up feeling more restedEffect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Howatson, G., Bell, P.G., Tallent, J., et al. School of Life Sciences, Northumbria University, Northumberland Building, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST, UK. European Journal of Nutrition, 2011 Oct 30.. To boost slumber even more, try Montmorency tart cherries, which have about six times more melatonin than other varietiesDetection and quantification of the antioxidant melatonin in Montmorency and Balaton tart cherries (Prunus cerasus). Burkhardt, S., Tan, D.X., Manchester, L.C., et al. Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, University of Texas Health Science Center, Mail Code 7762, 7703 Floyd Curd Drive, San Antonio, Texas, USA. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2001 Oct;49(10):4898-902..

A Cherry on Top — Your Action Plan

Cherries have a limited growing season, so take advantage of them in the summer months when they’re in peak condition. At the grocery store or farmer’s market, look for plump, dark red fruits, and for the best taste, look for ones with glossy and unblemished skin. Store them unwashed in the fridge in their original breathable packaging to prevent over-ripening, and they’ll keep for up to five days. And make sure to keep the stems intact — they’ll last longer that way! The best part about these summer delights? Cherries are wonderful eaten raw — just wash and serve! To remove the pit, use a small paring knife to split the cherry in half, and the hard center can be taken out by hand. Or, of course, just chew the fruit and spit out the seeds (perfect picnic etiquette!). But don’t frown yet — these treats can be enjoyed all year long, too. Just keep a bag in the freezer year round, as frozen cherries retain 100 percent of their nutritional value and make a great addition to smoothies, yogurt, and oatmeal. Our Favorite Recipes from Around the Web:

Breakfast: Cherry Granola via Choose Cherries Lunch: Turkey Sandwich with Cherry Compote via YumSugar Post-Workout Snack: Cherry Almond Smoothie via The New York Times Dinner: Grilled Chicken with Cherries, Shallots, and Arugula via Whole Living Dessert: Cherries with Ricotta & Toasted Almonds via Eating Well

Bonus Recipe: Dark Chocolate Cherry Granola Bars

Photo by Caitlin Covington

In need of a perfect post-workout snack? How about a beneficial breakfast on-the-go? Unlike store-bought granola bars that are often held together with sugar, this homemade option is full of healthy ingredients — and they’re a cinch to make! These bars feature chewy, filling oats, are sweetened with all-natural honey, and even contain antioxidant-rich dark chocolate for heart health. And of course, they’re brimming with cherries — now that’s what we call the cherry on top! What You’ll Need:

1/2 cup reduced-fat creamy peanut butter 1/3 cup honey 2 tablespoons canola oil 1 egg 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 3 cups oats (half old-fashioned style, half steel-cut) 1/2 cup packed brown sugar 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup dried Montmorency cherries, chopped 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips What to Do:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl, beat the peanut butter, honey, oil, egg, and vanilla until well blended.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, and salt. Stir into the peanut butter mixture.
  4. Stir in cherries and chocolate chips. (Batter will be sticky.)
  5. Coat a 13×9-inch baking dish with cooking spray, then transfer the granola bar mixture into the dish.
  6. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.
  7. Cool for 10 minutes, then transfer to the refrigerator until they are cooled completely.
  8. Cut into bars, and enjoy! Pro Tip: For easy transport, individually wrap bars in wax paper.