Most women think that cranberries are useful only for helping eradicate or prevent UTI infections. But the health benefits of cranberries are far more wide-ranging and even a tad surprising.
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a small round red colored fruit which is native to America. It typically grows in bogs. If you’ve ever been in Nantucket you may have seen its extensive bogs. Nantucket is home to some of the largest contiguous cranberry bogs in the world where cranberries have been grown since 1857. American cranberry is one of the only three species of fruit native to North America. The other species are blueberry and bilberry. Cranberry gets its name from “crane-berry” because its stem and flower resemble the head, neck, and beak of a crane.
Cranberries are high in vitamin C and fiber and only 45 calories per cup. In disease-fighting antioxidants, cranberries outrank nearly every fruit and vegetable–including strawberries, spinach, broccoli, red grapes, apples, raspberries, and cherries. They have strong antibacterial effects in the body and eating cranberries prevents viruses and bacteria from attaching itself to the body. Something else to think about before sleeping with someone you don’t know well! (While women often drink unsweetened cranberry juice to treat an infection, there’s no hard evidence that works.) The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding research on the cranberry’s effects on heart disease, yeast infections and other conditions, and other researchers are investigating its potential against cancer, stroke and viral infections.
One cup of whole cranberries has 8,983 total antioxidant capacity. Only blueberries can top that: Wild varieties have 13,427; cultivated blueberries have 9,019.From http://www.whfoods.com – an AMAZING website by the way!
While familiar nutrients like vitamin C and fiber play a very important role in cranberry’s health benefits, it’s the amazing array of phytonutrients in cranberries that has gotten the special attention of health researchers. There are at least 5 key categories of health-supportive phytonutrients in cranberries and these have been studied for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, and in many cases the results have been impressive. Equally important in the cranberry research has been the finding that isolated phytonutrients in cranberry do not account for the same degree of health benefit as phytonutrients taken as a complete, synergistic group. What this research finding means is simple: it’s the whole cranberry that supports our health best.
When speaking in general terms about the health benefits of cranberries, it is also important to know that the most commonly consumed form of this food is juice processed from the berries and typically produced by adding generous amounts of sugar. This form of cranberry cannot provide you with cranberry’s full phytonutrient benefits. The cranberry “presscake”—or what is left behind in terms of skins and flesh after the juice has been processed out—typically contains the bulk of the phytonutrients when evaluated in lab studies.
Protection against Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
Long before researchers started investigating from the standpoint of science, cranberry has been used to help prevent and treat urinary tract infections (UTIs). While the acidity of cranberries was at one time an important target of research, we now know that cranberry’s ability to provide UTI benefits is not primarily related to its acidity, but rather to its proanthocyanidin (PAC) content. The PACs in cranberry have a special structure (called A-type linkages) that makes it more difficult for certain types of bacteria to latch on to our urinary tract linings. Include in these types of bacteria are pathogenic (infection-causing) strains of E. coli—one of the most common microorganisms involved in UTIs. By making it more difficult for unwanted bacteria like E. coli to cling onto the urinary tract linings, cranberry’s PACs help prevent the expansion of bacterial populations that can result in outright infection. The age group in which researchers are least sure about this process involves children—it’s just not clear when cranberry’s health benefits fully extend to this age group. The area where benefits have been most pronounced are in middle-aged women who have experienced recurrent UTIs. In some studies, UTIs in this age and gender group have been reduced by more than one—third through dietary consumption of cranberry.
The discovery that cranberries prevent UTIs by blocking adhesion of bacteria to the urinary tract lining is a discovery that has allowed research on cranberry to expand out in other important directions. In the Digestive Benefits section below, you will see how prevention of stomach ulcer is one very intriguing new direction in the cranberry research, based on this exact same principle of blocking bacterial adhesion to the lining of an organ system. (In the case of stomach ulcer, it’s the stomach lining that’s at risk, and the bacteria involved are the Helicobacter pylori bacteria.)
For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth and gums, stomach, and colon) cranberry has been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s the phytonutrients in cranberry that are especially effective in lowering our risk of unwanted inflammation, and virtually all of the phytonutrient categories represented in cranberry are now known to play a role. These phytonutrient categories include proanthocyanidins (PACs), anthocyanins (the flavonoid pigments that give cranberries their amazing shades of red), flavonols like quercetin, and phenolic acid (like hydroxycinnamic acids).
In the case of our gums, the anti-inflammatory properties of cranberry can help us lower our risk of periodontal disease. Chronic, excessive levels of inflammation around our gums can damage the tissues that support our teeth. It’s exactly this kind of inflammation that gets triggered by ongoing overproduction of certain cytokines. (Cytokines are messaging molecules, and the pro-inflammatory cytokines tell our cells to mount an inflammatory response. As messages are sent more frequently and more constantly, the inflammatory response becomes greater.) Phytonutrients in cranberry help reduce this inflammatory cascade of events precisely at the cytokine level.
Dietary consumption of cranberry has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic, unwanted inflammation in the stomach, large intestine (colon) and cardiovascular system (especially blood vessel linings). We’ll discuss some of these health benefits in more detail in the Digestive Benefits and Cardiovascular Benefits sections of this cranberry profile.
While research in this area is somewhat limited, recent studies on the immune support benefits of cranberry are exciting. In studies on very small numbers of human participants, intake of cranberry extracts has shown the ability to improve multiple aspects of immune function, and to lower the frequency of cold and flu symptoms in the subjects. In several of these studies, the cranberry extracts were standardized to contain a known, higher-end amount of proanthocyanidins (PACs)—somewhat comparable to a double-strength cranberry juice. The doses of cranberry extract used in these studies match up fairly well with generous intake of whole, raw cranberries, and hopefully, future studies will focus on precisely that: intake of whole, raw cranberries and resulting changes in cold and flu symptoms.
Following decreased risk of urinary tract infection (UTI), increased health of the cardiovascular system is perhaps the best-researched area of cranberry health benefits. It’s the combined impact of cranberry antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in cranberry that’s responsible here. Oxidative stress and chronic inflammation can place our blood vessel walls at great risk of damage. Once damaged, our blood vessels walls can undergo a process of plaque formation, and our risk of atherosclerosis (blood vessel wall thickening and blood vessel blocking) can be greatly increased. Dietary intake of cranberries and cranberry juice (in normal everyday amounts, unchanged for research study purposes) has been shown to prevent the triggering of two enyzmes that are pivotal in the atherosclerosis process (inducible nitric oxide synthase, or iNOS, and cyclo-oxygenase 2, or COX-2). In both cases, cranberry has also been shown to prevent activation of these enzymes by blocking activity of a pro-inflammatory cytokine- messaging molecule called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). These anti-inflammatory benefits of cranberry appear to be critical components in the cardiovascular protection offered by this amazing fruit.
The antioxidants found in cranberry are especially important contributors to its potential for health support. From a research perspective, there are two especially important points to consider when thinking about the antioxidant benefits of cranberries. First is the amazing array of antioxidants that are found exclusively in whole cranberries. Cranberry’s special combination of phenolic antioxidants, proanthocyanidin antioxidants, anthocyanin antioxidants, flavonoid antioxidants, and triterpenoid antioxidants is without a doubt unique. Also unique is the particular combination of three antioxidant nutrients—resveratrol, piceatannol, and pterostilbene—found in cranberry. Second are the research findings regarding the synergy between these nutrients. The phytonutrients in cranberry provide maximal antioxidant benefits only when consumed in combination with each other, and also only when consumed alongside of conventional antioxidant nutrients present in cranberry like manganese and vitamin C. When cranberry processing disrupts this antioxidant combination, health benefits from cranberry are decreased. Multiple studies in multiple health benefit areas point to this same conclusion—it’s the overall blend of cranberry antioxidants that provides us with the strongest health benefits.
One further point about cranberry antioxidant research seems worthy of mention. In several research studies, cranberries were unable to provide significant antioxidant benefits when those benefits were measured in terms of blood values. In these studies, it took a much closer look at activities going on inside of our cells to demonstrate the antioxidant benefits of cranberries. The need to look inside of our cells to find cranberry antioxidant benefits may be telling us that the special value of cranberries may often involve metabolic events that are taking place “behind the scenes.” In other words, these benefits may sometimes be missed in more broadly focused research studies, and cranberry may in fact have a stronger research track record than previously assumed.
No area of cranberry research has been more intriguing in the past 10 years than research on cranberry and cancer, even though the majority of studies in this area have involved lab studies on human cancer cells or animal experiments. On a virtual year-by-year basis, scientists continue to identify new mechanisms that establish cranberries as anti-cancer agents. These mechanisms are now known to include: blocked expression of MMPs (matrix metalloproteinases); inhibition of ODC (ornithine decarboxylase enzymes); stimulation of QRs (quinone reductase enzymes); inhibition of CYP2C9s (Phase I detoxification enzymes); and triggering of apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumor cells. It’s important to point out that this amazing list of anti-cancer properties in cranberry is not sufficient to establish cranberry as a food to be used in the treatment of cancer. However, it is a list that appears consistent with other studies of cranberry and cancer showing dietary intake of this food to help prevent cancer occurrence. These cancer-preventive benefits of cranberry are especially likely in the case of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer.
None of the cancer-related benefits of cranberries should be surprising, since cranberry is loaded with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Chronic excessive oxidative stress (from lack of sufficient antioxidant support) and chronic excessive inflammation (from lack of sufficient anti-inflammatory compounds) are two key risk factors promoting increased likelihood of cancer. With its unique array of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, cranberry seems ideally positioned to help us lower our risk of cancer development.
Digestive Tract Benefits
When you add up the health-related benefits of cranberry for our mouth and gums (decreased risk of periodontal disease), stomach (decreased risk of stomach ulcer), and colon (decreased risk of colon cancer), it’s impossible not to conclude that cranberry is unique among fruits in its ability to provide us with digestive tract benefits. Every category of phytonutrient known to be provided by cranberry is also known to play a role in digestive tract support. In the case of cranberry’s proanthocyanidins, it’s decreased adherence of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori to our stomach wall that’s made possible by intake of cranberry. In the case of cranberry’s flavonoids, anthocyanins and triterpenoids, provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits that decrease our risk of colon cancer, and also our risk of periodontal disease.
Recent research has also shown that cranberry may be able to help optimize the balance of bacteria in our digestive tract. Participants in one recent study involving cranberry juice intake (in amounts of approximately 2 ounces per day and over the course of about 3 months) were able to increase the numbers of Bifidobacteria in their digestive tract while maintaining other bacterial types (Bifidobacteria are typically considered to be a desirable and “friendly” type of bacteria). As a result, the relative amount of Bifidobacteria was increased, and the bacterial environment of the digestive tract may have become more favorable. Given the vast array of phytonutrients in cranberry and the known connection between so many of these phytonutrients and digestive tract health, we expect to see the digestive benefits of cranberry becoming more and more apparent in future research on this incredible berry.
Buying and Storing
I have not found cranberries in Europe so whenever I am in the U.S. I bring back several bags of dried cranberries from Whole Foods. You can buy them frozen in the UK – and apparently fresh in parts of Eastern Europe but I have no specifics on where. When you are in the U.S., avoid bags that have a lot of soft or brown berries. The best cranberries bounce (in fact, cranberries used to be called “bounceberries”). Keep cranberries cool. They will keep for weeks to months in the refrigerator, and at least a year in the freezer. (They will be softer than fresh upon thawing, but they are fine in any cooked dish.)
The health benefits of cranberries are almost totally depleted when generous amounts of sugar is added. Thus the cranberry cannot provide you with its full phytonutrient benefits when lots of sugar added. So if you think that sucking back of a few cosmopolitans or buying Ocean Spray is giving you a decent cranberry fix – think again.
Cooking and Serving Suggestions
- Cranberries add a zip to dishes like other sour or acid foods – trying using them in a similar way to lemon, or in a vinaigrette.
- It takes no more than 10 minutes to make cranberry sauce and it can eaten on cottage cheese, yogurt, or ricotta cheese for breakfast or a snack. (To make it even healthier, put some flax seed meal on top.) It’s also good with cheeses and nuts.
- Put sugar-free dried cranberries in trail mix and on salads.
- The sweet/tart combination of cranberries goes well with spicy flavors as well. Try including horseradish, jalapeno chiles, or other “hot” spices in your cranberry sauce or chutney.
- Cranberries are good in meat dishes, especially chicken and pork.
- And, of course, don’t forget the more traditional uses, such as in nut breads and muffins.
A fab cranberry chutney recipe – I slap it on bread or steamed fish.This low-carb, sugar-free cranberry chutney is tart, spicy (but not hot) and a little bit sweet — the balance can be varied to taste. The texture is important: The onions and apple should be a bit firm and contribute to the “tooth feel.”
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
- 1 12 oz bag cranberries – fresh or frozen
- 1 cup thinly sliced onions
- 1 small apple, chopped fairly fine, but not tiny (get a variety that doesn’t turn mushy)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- pinch cloves
- 1 teaspoon mild dried mild chile (e.g. ancho), or a pinch of stronger chile (e.g. cayenne)
- ~1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar equivalent from artificial sweetener
- 2 Tablespoons lime juice
- 1 teaspoon oil
1. Put oil in pan — it should just coat the pan — and add the onions. (You can cut sliced onions in half or thirds if you want smaller pieces, but no smaller than that.) Turn heat on medium-high, until onions start to sizzle. Stir, and cook for about 2 minutes. (You don’t want them to be completely soft at the end.)
2. Add apples and spices. Stir and cook another minute, until spicy smell fills kitchen.
3. Add water and sweetener, and then the cranberries.
4. Cook until the cranberries all pop, stirring occasionally. This should be about 5 to 7 minutes. You may have to add a little more water if it starts to stick. You don’t want to the cranberries to fully break down, as if you were making a sauce — at least some of them should still be recognizable.
5. Add lime juice and stir. Taste (careful, it’s hot) and adjust tartness/sweetness level by adding more sweetener and/or lime juice.
Makes 8 servings of ~1/4 cup, each
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