Of the many purported super-foods, one that originates from North America is the cranberry. Grown in bogs, cranberries are harvested in late fall, just in time for Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners. But this berry has virtues that go far beyond the pretty red blob on the plate wedged between mashed potatoes and stuffing.
A favorite food of Native Americans, cranberries were eaten fresh, juiced, cooked into other foods, or dried and eaten for energy. One favorite food included cranberries and crushed nuts (often acorns) in animal fat. When traveling long distances, such a snack provided concentrated energy.
During harvest, most cranberries are picked using the wet method. The bogs in which cranberry bushes grow are flooded, and then tractors roll through them with beaters that shake the berries off of the bushes. The berries float to the surface of the water. From there they are raked together on the water’s surface, and sucked up into trucks using vacuum hoses.
We know a lot more about cranberries than was known hundreds of years ago. The berries, which may appear red, white or pink depending on their stage of ripeness at time of harvest, contain a variety of beneficial compounds. One of the compounds often given special attention are PACs, or proanthocyanidins. These are not only potent antioxidants, but possess the capacity to cause the formation of new, healthy collagen, which is a key agent in tissue. The production of collagen is basically a youth-enhancing effect, helping to keep internal organs and skin more youthful.
Additionally, cranberries contain alpha-terpineol, which is both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. The berries contain the cancer-fighter benzaldehyde, glucose-modifying chlorogenic acids, and lutein, which enhances vision and reduces the risk of age-related macular degeneration. Additionally, cranberries are rich in the nutrient quercetin, which improves heart health, fights cancer, inhibits aging of cells, and reduces inflammation.
In terms of health benefits, cranberries are more concentrated in good-for-you compounds than broccoli, spinach, raspberries, strawberries and almost all other fruits and vegetables. The is what makes cranberries legitimate super-foods.
From a therapeutic standpoint, cranberries are beneficial for treating and preventing urinary tract infections. Cranberries do not kill bacteria in the urinary tract, but they do prevent the bacteria from attaching to urinary tract walls. This anti-adhesion effect means that the bacteria can’t colonize, and wind up flushed out of the body during urination.
A more recent benefit of cranberries concerns night-time urination. In one study, men who took a concentrate of cranberry urinated fewer times at night. This is due to increased thoroughness of urination, or more complete voiding. For those who get up at night, this can reduce the number of times, thus aiding a night’s sleep.
Cranberries are great eaten fresh, though many people find them too tart on their own. They are excellent when blended with orange juice and bananas in a smoothie. Dried cranberries make excellent snacks. But look for dried cranberries (organic whenever possible) sweetened with apple juice instead of sugar, for fewer calories. Another excellent way to eat cranberries is to add the whole berry sauce to plain yogurt, for a fruity treat that is excellent for breakfast.
You can buy fresh cranberries and store them in the refrigerator for up to two months. In the freezer they will keep fresh all winter long. You don’t need to thaw them out to toss a handful into a smoothie.
It’s time for cranberries to move out of the shadow of Thanksgiving, into the bright light of everyday enjoyment. Native, good for you, and packed with protective properties, cranberries deserve a broader role in the American diet.