by Kristen Rezabek, MS, RD, CD; Master Gardener Class of 2013
Cranberries are more than just a tart holiday treat. They are a nutrition powerhouse and packed with nutrients that may help prevent certain diseases such as urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, gum disease, heart disease and cancer. All this in such a small berry!
Cranberries grow in sandy bogs on low, trailing vines. Their name is derived from craneberries. This is the term the pilgrims used to describe the shape of this shrub’s pale pink blossoms, which resemble the heads of the cranes often seen wading through the cranberry bogs. Cranberries grow wild in the Northern United States and Northern Europe. Typically they are harvested between Labor Day and Halloween; the holiday season from October through December is prime time for buying fresh cranberries.
You don’t have to wait for the holiday decorations to go up to start enjoying this fruit! Cranberries are a natural source of potent plant chemicals called flavonoids, which offer many health benefits. The brilliant ruby color of the cranberry is part of what makes it such a nutrient rich food. Colorful red, blue, and purple pigments found in strawberries, cherries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, and black currants have health promoting properties. Highly colored fruits and vegetables have amazing abilities, from helping protect our arteries to acting as powerful antioxidants to fight cell damage. Eating a colorful diet may help protect against chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes, fight against the effects of pollution, and may even slow down the aging process.
One of the most widely known uses of cranberries is to prevent urinary tract infections. With one in four women developing a bladder infection in their lifetime, this is a significant problem. Early research has found drinking cranberry juice appears to lower the risk for developing a bladder infection. It is believed that cranberry helps prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall and causing infection. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health is currently funding several studies to find out more on cranberry’s role in preventing bladder infections. The evidence so far seems to indicate a benefit to drinking 8 ounces of 27% cranberry juice cocktail a day to prevent a bladder infections.
Cranberries may also play a similar role in preventing stomach ulcers. Possibly through the same role as above, preventing H. pylori bacteria from sticking to the wall of the stomach. However more research needs to be done on humans to determine if this is true.
With its bacteria blocking activity cranberry has also been linked to the prevention of gum disease. It may indeed help prevent bacteria from sticking to the tooth and causing a build up of plaque. A word of caution however, cranberry juice is also high in sugar and without proper dental hygiene drinking juice may raise the risk for tooth decay and gum disease. Again more studies on humans need to be done to prove cranberry’s benefit in mouth care.
As far as helping in the fight against heart disease and cancer, we know that eating more fruits and vegetables helps to reduce our risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Cranberries are a rich source of plant chemicals and may help lower our LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood. Cranberries are also high in vitamin C and other antioxidants that may help prevent the free radical damage that causes cancer. More research is going on to determine the health benefits of cranberries and their role in preventing or delaying chronic disease.
Cranberries can be found usually packaged in 12-ounce plastic bags during the fall months at your local grocery store. Discard any cranberries that are discolored or shriveled. Cranberries can be refrigerated, tightly wrapped, for at least 2 months or frozen up to a year.
The bottom line is cranberries are a colorful addition to a varied diet. Popular uses for cranberry include drinking a glass of cranberry juice, adding fresh berries to baked goods, making sauces to compliment a meal or snacking on dried cranberries.
Try mixing cranberries into your salads for a tart taste such as the apple cranberry salad recipe below.
Apple Cranberry Salad
2 apples (red and green, cored and chopped into 1-inch pieces)
1 cup celery, sliced
¾ cup dried, sweetened cranberries
½ cup hazelnuts or walnuts, toasted
½ cup yogurt, plain, low fat
3 tablespoons orange juice concentrate, thawed
½ teaspoon salt
Blend apples, celery and nuts in large bowl. Set aside. Mix yogurt, orange juice concentrate and salt until blended. Pour over apple mixture and stir until blended.
For a printable copy of this recipe, click here:Apple Cranberry Salad
Find more recipes at the Pacific Coast Cranberry Museum.
A note of caution: If you are taking a blood thinner such as Warfarin you may want to limit the amount of cranberry juice you drink. It may potentially interact with that medication. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions or concerns.