Things You Never Knew About Maraschino Cherries (FAK Friday)

Maraschino Cherries & How They Are Made

 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things in the world was a twist on a classic Shirley Temple. My version consisted of a mix of 7up and maraschino cherry juice, with a few maraschino cherries plopped in for good measure. They were like the treasure at the bottom of my cup, buried beneath the ice cubes. I used to order this drink at every restaurant I went to, and at seven years old was not afraid to instruct my waiter on how to make it. The more cherries, the better.

Recently, out of a sudden and nostalgic urge, I bought a jar of maraschino cherries. It’s been years now since I’ve had them, and this is the first time I’ve purchased them as an adult. When I got them home, I noticed that the label proudly stated, “contains real cherries!”

I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it if not for those big bold letters, but it got me wondering… just how are maraschino cherries made? I’ve certainly never seen a cherry tree with neon-colored fruit hanging from its branches, but it had never really occurred to me just how far from nature they might be.

After doing a little research, I began to question the phrase “contains real cherries.” Sure, they start out as real cherries, but by the time all is said and done I’m not really sure they count as a fruit anymore. I mean, they’ve basically had the very soul sucked out of them. They are shadows of their former cherry-selves. All the things that make cherries cherries has been removed, leaving behind an empty shell of red color and sugar, an artificial vestige of what a cherry should be…

Maraschino Massacre (Maraschino Cherries and How They Are Made)

Sorry. I’m in a dark mood today. I call this one “Maraschino Massacre.”

This reminds me of a movie I saw a while back, in which a mad-scientist-plastic-surgeon kidnaps someone to be his subject, and performs surgery after surgery on them, altering their appearance more and more until they are completely unrecognizable from who they once were. It was the mad-scientist-plastic-surgeon’s dream to mold this person into his idea of bodily perfection. Eventually the person manages to escape, only to find that nobody knows who they are anymore. Their entire identity was gone.

It was horrific, and I don’t recommend the film, but that’s pretty much what these cherries go through. Let’s take a look, shall we?

The process starts with real, honest-to-goodness cherries. Usually a lighter variety, like Royal Ann, or Rainier. The cherries get pitted, then placed in a “brine” of sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride, meant to preserve the cherries and bleach them of their color. Now you have albino cherries, which probably don’t taste too good.

Next, the cherries get suspended in a pool of corn syrup, food coloring, and bitter almond oil. Or, as I like to call it, food-grade embalming fluid. You know, because cherries aren’t sweet enough, red enough, or medicinally almond-y enough on their own.

The type of food coloring most often used in making maraschino cherries is something called FD&C Red No. 40 (a chemical colorant banned in several other countries as a possible carcinogen). However, they can also contain Red #4 — a dye that was banned for use in food back in the 1960’s, but was re-approved for the purposes of dying maraschino cherries because they are considered “mainly decorative,” and, therefore “not a foodstuff.”

These cherries just keep getting better and better, don’t they?

They weren’t always so synthetic, though. Originally, maraschino cherries were simply whole cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur, a drink made from distilled marasca cherries. These drunken cherries were once reserved only for the wealthy, and considered a special treat. It was only during the American prohibition in the 1920’s that the alcohol was removed, and replaced with today’s chemical-drenched method.

Someone must have thought it was a good idea, because if I remember correctly, prohibition ended a long time ago.

And yet, after all this processing and artificiality, they somehow still maintain that “special treat” feeling. They are the poster child for decadence: pretty as can be, the embodiment of perfection, the proverbial (and literal), “cherry on top.”

What a twisted sense of perfection. I feel like this is a comment on what society regards as “beautiful.”

The Cherry On Top (Maraschino Cherries and How They Are Made)

I know they’re supposed to be cheery and fun, but these little cherries are really bringing me down.

Incredibly, though, “real” maraschino cherries are still available in Europe and, lucky for me, online. I plan to order some, just so I can experience them how they were meant to be.

How do you feel about maraschino cherries? Do you love them, hate them? How do you feel about them now? I’m intensely curious to know.

UPDATE: see my post on how to make your own, from-scratch maraschino cherries, here: Homemade Maraschino Cherries

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50 Responses to Things You Never Knew About Maraschino Cherries (FAK Friday)

  1. Create With Joy September 14, 2013 at 4:54 am #

    Dear Willow,

    I wanted to stop by and welcome you to Friendship Friday at Create With Joy! I spent some time perusing your blog and I love what you are sharing!

    I look forward to getting to know you and hope you’ll be a regular contributor to Friendship Friday (and Inspire Me Monday) as well!

    Enjoy your weekend!

  2. Mike Harvey September 14, 2013 at 7:28 am #

    I’ve never bought maraschino cherries but I’ll definitely be looking closely at the label of any I spot from now on before deciding whether or not to buy them. Fortunately, I live in Europe so I might be safe.

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:49 am #

      You probably are safe. I don’t even know if they even sell these bright-red abominations on your side of the ocean, come to think of it.

  3. britbird September 14, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Hate to add more negativity to this content but years ago I knew a family who had a seaweed processing plant in the west of Ireland and they explained to me that amongst many other foodstuffs, artificial cherries were one of the main after-products of same. Can’t be all bad though as seaweed has a lot of healthy benefits. I would prefer the original whole, natural cherries soaked in liquor, sounds so much better!
    Thanks for the interesting article.

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:50 am #

      Hmm… I’d be curious to know where the seaweed processing comes into artificial cherry making. Crazy!

  4. carey September 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    I was a Shirley Temple addict when I was little. (And your 7-up variation…genius! I’d like to go back in time and order that at a restaurant, before I feared the true nature of the maraschino cherry.) I spent a summer working at an ice cream stand right after college, and I remember reading the ingredient list on the ginormous jar of cherries one day and thinking “omg…..this is what I was eating when I was little??” It’s scary.

    There are a number of bars/restaurants around here that serve high-quality or house-made brandied cherries in their cocktails, and they are deeeevine. And actual cherry-colored, which is always reassuring. (:

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:52 am #

      Haha, I know what you mean. I often long to go back to my ignorant seven-year-old self, just so I can really enjoy all that stuff again without knowing how bad it is.

      And those brandied cherries sound incredible! I may have to try making some myself when cherries are back in season.

  5. Mark September 14, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    Someone once asked me to eat a peep.

    I refused

  6. chefmimiblog.com September 14, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Fascinating post! By the way, have you ever tried Maraschino liqueur? Ugh!!! I bought some because I thought it would be good but I can’t even taste it because it smells so strong. I’ll have to do something with it during holidays – maybe some kind of punch or something!!

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:54 am #

      I have never had Maraschino liqueur on its own. Besides being used to make traditional maraschino cherries, I think it’s usually mixed with other liquors to make cocktails. A punch sounds like a great use for it, or I’m sure you can find plenty of recipes on the web!

  7. Celtic Raven September 14, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    There was a gal I knew that used to work at Del Monte (or some such fruit massacring corporation). She told me that they also use insect blood as a coloring agent. I never checked it out, but I stopped eating maraschinos and canned fruit from big corps after hearing her story. Needless to say, after reading your article and regardless of insect blood, I made the right move. I do miss those Shirley Temples of my youth ~ ignorance is truly bliss.

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:56 am #

      That wouldn’t surprise me one bit — in fact, now that you mention it, I think I heard that said about the coloring used to make commercial red velvet cakes, so it’s probably the same thing. To be honest with you, bug guts are the least of my concerns after reading up on some of the chemically crap that’s in there, haha! You are absolutely right, ignorance truly is bliss.

  8. Sue/the view from great island September 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    I made my own with Kirsch, and then another batch with brandy, so technically I guess they weren’t maraschino, but I think they’re much better, no day-glo color and much better flavor.

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:57 am #

      Sounds delicious! I like the idea of using brandy, I’ll have to try that. :)

  9. CrazyNutsMom September 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    I feel dirty after reading how icky these cherries are. I had no idea Thank you for letting me kno.

    I to want to have the real kind, the way nature intented, ya know…with liquor! :)

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:57 am #

      You’re welcome! And I know what you mean, I feel a little dirty just thinking about all the maraschino cherries I’ve eaten in my lifetime. Ugh!

  10. movita beaucoup September 15, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Maraschino Massacre indeed! (Love that photo, FYI.) I’ve never been a fan of maraschino cherries – just don’t like the taste of ’em. But Shirley Temples? As a child, I thought they were the most sophisticated drink of all time, and I simply couldn’t fathom why adults weren’t drinking them all of the time! Maybe my parents were smart to ban them…

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:59 am #

      That’s because they WERE the most sophisticated drink of all time. Those silly adults could never understand.

      (But yes, they were smart to ban them.)

  11. kimi September 15, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Bees near a maraschino factory produced red honey from feasting on the output. Disgusting. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.html?_r=0

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 1:59 am #

      Wow – incredible article, thank you for sharing!

  12. Kari Lindsay September 15, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    I’ve heard that maraschino cherries are carcinogenic, but never looked into why. Since I really dislike them any way it really didn’t matter to me. It is still a shame that they’re allowed to make such a thing!

  13. April @ 100lb Countdown September 16, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    I’ve never craved these, but have eaten them. Not anymore. They sound disgusting! Thanks for sharing with us.

    Stopping by from Our Everyday Harvest.

  14. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes September 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Oh man, I cringed when I saw the title and thought to my self- do we really want to know? The cherry on top , bright red and beaming on my Weeks Sunday ( a local restaurant) was my favorite part of the sundae, my mom and dad would always give me theirs too…maybe about 2 years ago I cam home with a jar and Justin was totally taken back- he couldn’t understand me of all people why i would buy fake cherries, I am a sucker for anything that reminds me of my childhood :) needless to say I am pretty sure that jar of cherries is still in the fridge door!

    After reading this I think I will keep with the real cherries- although I am going to check out that link!

    • Willow Arlen September 19, 2013 at 2:02 am #

      Haha, I know what you mean… there’s something so cozy and nostalgic about them! I’m excited to try the real thing, though (I’ll either order some, or make my own the next time cherries are in season). Either way, I’m sure they’ll be worlds better!

  15. Deanna September 16, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    Fantastic article Willow. I love your massacre photo, very evil yet chic. I never cared for them myself, but picked some up a couple years ago for Aleah’s birthday party. I think they are still in the fridge. I will be tossing them out as soon as I get home tonight. Thank you for the education. Take care :)

  16. shannon weber September 19, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    maraschino cherries really bum me out too! i loved them as a kid – like, LOVED – and the color has always been very retro-fantastic to me; just that whole sixties-era bright, colorful foodstuffs (and from what i can tell, the heyday of food coloring). I like it for nostalgia reasons, but a few months back, i read an article on what maraschino cherries actually contain versus how they began their history; so sad. so toxic! and it’s just one of those things people pick up and don’t even think about. this is a great piece, willow.

  17. mllescudery July 27, 2014 at 3:04 am #

    Just stumbled over your blog, WOW I absolutely adore your photography – really great pics and I will certainly try some of your recipes soon. To add to the maraschino cherry discussion: over here in Europe we hardly get those cherries anymore as there has been much ado about them being a health risk. I haven’t come across “real” maraschino but found out that you can buy them in gourmet shops and online – must try. Most commonly used for desserts are so called amarena cherries, a special deep dark and rather bitter cherry from the north of Italy soaked in an extremely sugary syrup. I must admit that as a child growing up in the States in the 70s, I also adored those neon red things and used to sneak up to my parents drinks cabinet, made myself mock cocktails with them and pretended to be a “lady at a party with famous people” (rather embarrassing, I’m just glad Facebook, smartphones and the internet weren’t around then!)

    • Willow July 27, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

      Yay, I’m glad you stopped by! And that’s hilarious, I did the same sort of thing. I felt so fancy with a glass of seven up and maraschino cherries! Now a’days I don’t even like the taste, not to mention all the crap that goes into making them, though. (Also, you have very good timing in making this comment, because I actually have a few jars of real, homemade maraschino cherries aging in my fridge right now. I should be making a blog post with the recipe in the next week or two!)

  18. Cuban Chick in Miami August 7, 2014 at 1:11 am #

    I am so thrilled that I read all the information about the process of the abominable maraschino cherries! For the past few months I have been severely addicted to them. I have been drinking diet cola and adding at least 7 to 10 maraschino cherries 2 or 3 times a day. I have a new jar in my refrigerator now that I’m going to throw away. I have ingested so many of them in the past few months that I am a bit concerned that they can harm my health. Does anybody have any opinion about that? thank you so much for educating me on this modern

    • Coco-V October 12, 2014 at 11:49 am #

      I just read it’s Red #3, not #4 that is bad for you. But today’s maraschinos don’t have #3 (check the label). Plus I read you’d have to eat like 50,000 cherries a day to reach carcinogenic levels with red #3.

      The preservatives sound pretty gross but anything packaged has preservatives.

      Basically, 30 maraschino cherries a day probably won’t kill you.

      And I just ate half a bag of Candy Corn and that does have Red#3 in it. I think you are safer with your cherries than I am with my candy corn.

      Stupid sweet tooth gets me every time!

  19. Coco-V October 12, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    I checked and my cherries and grenadine only have Red 40 (not #4) so at least I don’t have the carcinogen part going. I do like a Shirley Temple as a non-alcoholic beverage! I love eating the cherries and chewing on the stems, don’t rob me of my beloved fun drink you mean ol chemicals.

  20. Amber October 23, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    You’re braver than I am. I found myself similarly reminiscing about maraschino cherries about a year ago. And after the initial impulse that introduced them to my children, they have since become a regular staple in our house. I too was concerned about the ingredients and process surrounding these seemingly innocent, but wholly unnatural little treats. But had thus far refused to do any research, even as far as checking the ingredients list. Though the product currently housed in the fridge does contain red 40 rather than red 4, a quick internet search does not alleviate my worries as 40 is also banned in several European countries, NOT recommended for consumption by children due to potential negative behavioral effects, and can cause cancer in lab animals (poor animals :(
    Suffice it to say that my next stop will be to your homemade maraschino recipe page.
    Thanks for the info – it’s welcome even if it’s not happy news!

  21. Ragnar February 23, 2015 at 6:42 pm #

    I have never eaten, nor been the LEAST-bit interested in (certainly not “enamored by”) “maraschino cherries”.

    I am *shocked* to read of YOUR (the writer’s) surprise at -their true nature- and fascination with them!
    I cannot imagine putting anything “neon colored” into my mouth or body, with ANY consideration toward it being anything BUT: plastic. Manufactured. Unhealthy. A piece of visual propaganda. A distraction. – That is to say: one could ALLOW oneself to eat one/them, but having any illusions as to their being a SINGLE, useful, nutritional quality or value to them …is beyond imbecility.

    I suppose that much (if not all) of this can be traced back to my Mother’s beliefs and teachings: Even as the FDA was becoming the tool of and ‘front’ for agri-business (back in the early ’70s), she extolled the values and virtue of: things that had grown, of their own, in the ground or which, at least, had fed themselves on such things.
    Not to say that we had farm-fresh food on the table, every day …but I appreciated the value of said and, when I began to be responsible for my own diet (by purchasing and/or cooking the foods/meals IN said…), all of this understanding (as well as my own reading and understanding) went into this.

    I have NEVER had the urge to have a maraschino cherry come anywhere NEAR me!!!! …I’m relatively certain that I must have ordered some ilk of foodstuff or drink, at SOME point, which featured at least one in or in it. Without fail, it was removed and ignored. …Even as a “decoration,” I can’t, really, understand the attraction. :-P

    …I AM so much of a reader that I *DO* recall, at some point, looking-up (for unspecifiable reason(s)) or (simply) reading about maraschino cherries, and being somewhat surprised to find that they, at SOME point, were NOT the, utter, mutant plastic which I have always known/thought them to be!
    I believe the blog, above, explains things EVEN better (than the resource I recall deriving my information from). I believe I had understood “maraschino” or “maraschini” cherries to be an, actual, species of cherry …but it WAS clear that they were soaked/’preserved’ in alcohol (not corn syrup, et al.) – which makes much more sense in their history as a drink garnish, etc. (y)

    • Willow Arlen February 25, 2015 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Ragnar, thanks for your comment.

      I can’t say I was particularly surprised by how artificial maraschino cherries are. (My statement about having never seen neon colored cherries hanging from trees was meant purely for humor’s sake.) The truth is that I, as an adult, hold the same beliefs your very wise mother did, and would never want to put anything so fake in my body, if I can help it. But when I was a kid, I didn’t know any better (and didn’t have someone in my life to teach me), so I never really thought about just how truly removed from nature maraschino cherries were. It wasn’t until I was an adult, and read the almost comical statement on the jar: “contains real cherries,” that I really gave them much thought. My purpose in writing this article was that if my parents could take maraschino cherries for granted, and in tern, impress upon me that something so artificial was okay to eat, than there must be many others out there who don’t know how bad they really are. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and share that with anyone else who could benefit from knowing.

      You are very lucky to have grown up with someone who already knew the benefits of eating real, whole foods. That was a lesson I had to learn, mostly on my own. Sure, I knew maraschino cherries were artificial and had no nutritional value, but the nostalgic in me wanted to believe they weren’t all bad. It wasn’t until I cared enough to do the research that I learned how awful they really are. And you’re absolutely right, knowing what I know now, I would never choose to eat one.

      I thank you again for your very thoughtful comment — it makes me happy to know there are people in the world like your mother and yourself to raise children who already know these things. It may seem like common sense to those who grew up that way, but with the supermarket so full of (pardon my language) crap these days, many people just take for granted the FDA’s seal of approval. I hope that by sharing things like this and having constructive conversations about it, more people will learn to appreciate what they put in their bodies. :)

  22. sue May 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

    how are the plastic stems inserted into the right spot on the cherry, how are they attached to the cherry

    • Willow Arlen May 20, 2015 at 11:28 am #

      Hi Sue — all the maraschino cherries I’ve seen have real stems, not plastic, so I’m not sure I can answer your question. For the kind of maraschino cherries I know, the stems are simply left on the cherries at the beginning of the process. If there are ones out there with plastic stems, than that’s a fantastic question, I have no idea how they’d be attached!

  23. joyce December 1, 2015 at 1:58 am #

    They were my reason for eating fruit cocktail as a kid…those sweet though funny-tasting, bright-red cherries!

  24. Anony-Mouse December 18, 2015 at 5:21 am #

    I watched a documentary of how Maraschino cherries were made, in high school. I was kind of grossed out, for the next few months, and didn’t want anything to do with them. Then I asked myself, “They’re delicious, and I love them, so who cares?”

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go out and buy a dozen jars of them, every week. Hell, I don’t even have more than a jar a year. Still, if you enjoy them, then why not?

    • Willow Arlen December 18, 2015 at 9:29 am #

      If you love them, go for it! There are plenty of things that as a once-and-a-while treat aren’t so bad — I certainly have my fair share of guilty pleasures! (By the way, I love your handle!)

  25. Jeff r December 15, 2016 at 11:51 pm #

    When I was 12 years old (1973) I worked for a company called Muir roberts now defunct after reading this you will know why. The plant I worked at was right in cherry tree heaven they grew every type of cherry My job was keep the brine pH at a set level to high add water if to low toss in another 200lbs of powderd muratic acid (the bins were 11000gallons) we would “brine” these Frankenstein cherrys for 2 months then put on a wet suit dive into the tank with a 8″ diameter suction hose and swim around sucking them into 800 gallon totes for shipping to the plant that installed the dye,sweetener,color. I can still smell that poison when it got on your skin you turned black/brown and it had to wear off when the acidic level got to high we would put sheet metal in it to rust for a local artist who made all kinds of rustic/Vintage artwork he said it gave a real nice “patina” I tell my kids this story they think I’m full of s# it all I can say is I’ve never allowed ANYTHING on my table that has EVER came close to one of those things. enjoy

    • Willow Arlen December 17, 2016 at 10:46 am #

      Wow… that’s a crazy story, but I believe you! Thank you for sharing your experience. Just one more reason to avoid (store-bought) maraschino cherries.

  26. Angliase January 9, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

    There”s an urban myth that cocktail cherries stay in your gut & are still there when they do autopsies!!! OMG.

    I ised to buy 2 ozs of them after school in England to get a sweet taste – cheaper than chocolate.

    Those were the days!!

    • Willow Arlen January 9, 2017 at 6:38 pm #

      Yikes, I hadn’t heard that before! I used to eat them all the time when was younger, too. Ah, to be a kid again!

  27. Juliano Correa May 14, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    Here in Brazil there is a kind of conspiracy theory that says all preserved cherries are made of chayote (a common fruit in South America), because chayote is tasteless and easy to cut in small balls. I actually suspect most of “maraschino cherries” I’ve eatten all life here were made of some kind of jelly, because they were so similar in taste and consistency to jellybeans… anyway, if this is truth, it’s probably less unhealthy to eat fake jelly cherries, because the first grosse part of making preserved real cherries is missing. But these supposed fake cherries still have the huge amount of sugar and #4 red… so sad real cherries are expensive here in my country…

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  1. Simple DIY Maraschino Cherries - Twenty Two To Life - December 14, 2014

    […] maraschino cherries we are familiar with are bleached white and then embalmed in corn syrup and are exactly what you don’t want going into a quality Manhattan or Old Fashioned.  You […]

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