Cranberries, tart, tasty red berries, are native to North America and were originally called the "craneberry" by Pilgrims because the small pink flowers that bloom in the spring resemble the head and bill of a crane.
Though television commercials have us believing cranberries grow in water, they actually grow on vines in special beds called bogs, which are flooded with water prior to harvesting.
Because cranberries have pockets of air inside the fruit, they float in water. This makes it much easier to harvest with special equipment that stirs the water, removing the berries from the vines.
Research shows that cranberries have health benefits. Cranberries contain antioxidants, which help protect against damage from free radicals.
However, the primary healthy action of the cranberry is its ability to prevent bacteria from adhering or sticking and causing an infection.
Some benefits of this ability include:
- Urinary tract infections might be prevented by eating cranberries or drinking cranberry juice cocktail. Cranberries have been shown to prevent E. coli bacteria from clinging to urinary tract walls in women who are prone to these infections. The beneficial effect is preventative only and is not a treatment to cure an infection.
- Stomach ulcers might be reduced by not permitting H. pylori, the bacteria found in the stomach that causes ulcers, from sticking to the stomach lining.
- Periodontal gum disease and cavities might be inhibited by the protective anti-adhesion substances in cranberries. However, because of the added sugar in cranberry juice, the effect may be neutralized.
- Heart health may be enhanced by cranberries because they might help lower cholesterol levels, offering a natural defense against atherosclerosis resulting from high levels of LDL or "bad cholesterol."
- Compounds in cranberries may inhibit cancer cells in some forms of cancer.
If you are tempted to take cranberry supplements to gain these health benefits, be aware that supplements are not standardized. More research is needed in this area. Research has shown that that the equivalent amount of the following provide similar health benefits:
- 10 ounces of cranberry juice cocktail
- 1 1/2 cups of fresh or frozen cranberries
- 1 ounce of dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup of cranberry sauce
Cranberries are available in a wide variety of forms including fresh fruit, juice, sauce, and dried. Juices and sauce are available year-round at your grocery retailer. Fresh, whole cranberries are generally available, in your local grocery stores, from September through December. They will keep refrigerated for a month or frozen in airtight containers for up to a year. For best results in most recipes, use the berries while they are still frozen.
Cranberries can be used chopped or whole in breads, pancakes, muffins and salads. They can be cooked whole and made into a sauce or chopped with other ingredients to make a relish.
Whatever recipe you choose, you will need to add sugar or an alternative sweetener as most people find they are too tart to eat alone.
Because it is so tart, 100 percent cranberry juice is not available: Cranberry juice drinks are only about 25 percent juice. Juices are either sweetened with sugar, an alternative sweetener or blended with other naturally sweet juices. Those sweetened with sugar have more calories. A sugar-sweetened juice has about 120 calories per cup while those with alternative sweeteners have about 45 calories per cup. Even dried cranberries have added sweetener. A handful of sugar-sweetened dried cranberries have nearly 100 calories.
For your holiday menu here are a few quick-to-fix ideas using the festive, flavorful cranberry:
Roll your favorite cheese ball in chopped cranberries and nuts. No time to make a cheese ball? Use a log of goat cheese and you've got an instant appetizer.
When making your favorite quick bread recipe, add whole fresh, frozen or dried cranberries in place of other fruit.
Dried cranberries are a natural addition to your favorite trail mix.
Add dried or chopped fresh cranberries with apples or pears to your favorite greens for a colorful salad.
Making a rice pilaf? Include dried cranberries for holiday color.
Packed with nutrients like antioxidants and other natural compounds, cranberries are a great choice as part of a healthful diet. Include more cranberries in your diet today and start eating healthier today.
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.