Give thanks for healthy cranberries

As Thanksgiving nears, we tend to think of holiday foods. Thanksgiving is a bad day for turkeys for sure, but the typical holiday meal, with squash and other healthy ingredients, is a favorite time for many. One of the regular features of a Thanksgiving dinner is cranberry sauce, and that brings us to the healthy benefits of this remarkable berry.

Native to North America, most cranberries are wet harvested. The berries, which ripen on low-growing perennial dwarf shrubs, are cultivated in bogs, where they are beaten off of the branches of the plant, and float until they are collected. Cranberries were introduced to colonial settlers by Native Americans, who used the berries which they called Sassamanash, in the concentrated food pemmican. A blend of fat, nuts, and dried fruits, pemmican provided a lot of energy, and travelled well. A colonial setter named Henry Hall is widely regarded as the first non-native to plant and grow cranberries.

Cranberries, with their tart flavor and rich red appearance, have become popular for juices and sauces. They have also made their way into the health market where they are increasingly highly regarded for their numerous therapeutic benefits. Probably the best known remedy for urinary tract infections (UTI), cranberries contain a group of antioxidant compounds called proanthocyanidins. These natural agents prevent bacteria, including E. coli, from adhering to the walls of the bladder and urinary tract. This was first reported in 1988 by Dr Amy Howell and her co-researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine. If bacteria can’t adhere to the walls of the urinary tract, they can’t proliferate and maintain infection. A six ounce glass of cranberry juice twice daily is often sufficient to eliminate a UTI for good.

From a cardiovascular standpoint, cranberries offer a rich concentration of antioxidant flavonoids, which help to inhibit the oxidation of fats in the blood, lower LDL cholesterol, and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a primary cardiovascular disease, and contributes to clots known as thrombosis that can obstruct vessels and lead to heart attack or stroke. Regular consumption of cranberry juice and other cranberry foods can make a positive contribution to cardiovascular health.

The same mechanism of action by which cranberries help to prevent and treat UTI’s also comes into play with ulcers. It is widely established that most stomach ulcers, other than those causes by excess use of aspirin, are due to the bacteria H. pylori. Cranberries appear to inhibit the adhesion of H. pylori to the lining of the digestive tract. The more concentrated the cranberry, the better this activity. H. pylori is a factor in cases of stomach cancer, acid reflux, and gastritis. Cranberry may turn out to be one of the very best medicines for reducing the risk of these diseases.

Tantalizing research shows that cranberries may even help to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Studies conducted in the US and Canada show that compounds in cranberries contribute to early destruction of prostate cancer cells. In several studies, cranberry concentrates proved toxic to cancer cells. As research continues, we may see the emergence of cranberry chemotherapy as a primary treatment for some types of prostate cancers.

As a powerfully antioxidant berry, cranberries deserve the monicker “super fruit.” They are low in calories, very high in beneficial compounds, and they not only contribute to well-being, but they also help to fight disease. A number of companies make highly concentrated extracts of cranberry for use in supplements, so if you don’t want to eat or drink cranberries on a regular basis, you can still derive their benefits.

From use by native Americans and their appearance on the first Thanksgiving table, cranberries have made their way to cultivated crop, widely enjoyed food, and natural medicine imparting significant benefits. Now that is something to be thankful for.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide.  His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at