Have you seen parts 1 and 2 of this series? Don’t miss the chance to add more flavor to your winter:
Most people are only familiar with them in the form of a jelly-like sauce appearing on Thanksgiving. Occasionally, they’re features dried in granola bars, muffins or bagels, usually sweetened to excess and coated in oil. But these little fruits are one of winter’s most amazing sources of powerful phytochemicals.
What are they — why, cranberries, of course!
Cranberries are often associated with Thanksgiving, but you can find them fresh in stores from the fall through the winter and in the freezer section all year long. Native to North America, cranberries grow on shrubs and are cultivated in the northeastern part of the United States, in Oregon and Washington states and in parts of Canada.
When it’s time to harvest, most growers flood cranberry beds with water and run harvesters through to remove the berries from the plants. The berries float and can therefore easily be collected. However, this method tends to damage the fruits, making them more suitable for freezing or turning into canned cranberry sauce than selling fresh. Between five and ten percent of U.S. crops are still harvested dry, producing a more attractive yield that can be bagged or sold in bulk.
Berry Benefits: Antioxidants for Health
With only 45 calories per cup of whole berries, cranberries are a low-calorie way to add beneficial phytonutrients o your diet. These tart little gems pack one of the biggest antioxidant punches in the fruit world with an ORAC value around 9,000, falling just a little short of wild bluebrries. ORAC stands for “oxygen radical absorbance capacity” and expresses the level of antioxidants in a food, providing an indication of how well the food may combat oxidative stress in the body.
Eating 100 grams of cranberries also provides:
- 18% daily value of manganese
- 18% daily value of vitamin C
- Small amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K
However, the antioxidant compounds are what really steal the show. With phenolic acids, proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins, flavanoids and triterpenoids (among others), cranberries deserve the title of “superfood.” All of these substances work together to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects in the body.
Part of the way cranberries fight inflammation is by blocking the action of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), part of the body’s pro-inflammatory cascade.Research into the cancer-protective effects is ongoing, but it seems cranberries are able to inhibit key enzymes in the cancer formation process and promote the natural death of damaged cells. The compounds in cranberries may also be able to keep enzymes related to the development of atherosclerosis in check, providing a dual benefit with the power of the antioxidants to protect against the free radical damage which can contribute to heart disease.
When it comes to gut health, cranberries play a role in lowering inflammation thanks to compounds such as quercetin. Inflammation can cause damage, including leaky gut syndrome, and result in symptoms ranging from discomfort and digestive distress to intolerances and allergies. There is some evidence cranberries may even increase the good bacteria in the gut, thereby boosting the health of the colon walls and providing potential protection against colon cancer.
And here’s one I found particularly interesting, mostly because it’s not an effect you hear touted much about superfoods: cranberry phytonutrients can protect against periodontal disease by lowering the production of the inflammatory cytokines that lead to puffy, red gums and subsequent tooth decay or loss.
Selecting and Preparing Cranberries
To purchase the perfect cranberries, look for plump, shiny fruits free of winkles. The deeper the color, the higher the antioxidant content. As with all fresh foods, you’re better off consuming the whole fruit than processed juices. Bottled juice not only tends to be full of sugar but also lacks the full complement of nutrients necessary for cranberries to exert their protective effects.
Fresh cranberries last for one to two months in the refrigerator, but they can be frozen for as long as a year — so don’t hesitate to stock up when you find a sale! Simply toss the whole bag in the freezer without opening it, and the berries will be there waiting if you find yourself craving a tart treat in the middle of the summer. Dried cranberries have a long shelf life and can be kept in the fridge for up to a year after the “best by” date and indefinitely in the freezer.
People with kidney disease or who take warfarin should be careful with cranberry intake, as the fruit may increase oxalate excretion in urine and has the potential to increase the effects of certain pharmaceutical drugs.
Ready to pump your meals full of antioxidants just by adding this one seasonal fruit?
- Go sweet by adding dried cranberries to oatmeal or museli
- Mix fresh or dried into baked goods before cooking
- Use dried or fresh cranberries in savory pilafs or stuffed squash filling
- Throw fresh or dried onto salads
- Add dried to trail mix or homemade granola bars
- If you’re into tart flavors, eat them raw, straight up (Not for the faint of heart!)
- And, of course, homemade cranberry sauce!
Looking for specific recipes? Cranberries can star in many varied dishes:
- Isa’s Orange Cranberry Muffins
- Wild Rice Pilaf with Butternut Squash from What Would Cathy Eat?
- Roasted Acorn Squash Stuffed with Quinoa Mushroom Pilaf on One Green Planet
- Food-Life Balance’s Homemade Apple Cranberry Granola
- Pumpkin, Apple and Cranberry Oatmeal by The Oatmeal Artist — A truly seasonal combination!
Note: Most dried cranberries contain sweetener, oil or both. I’ve seen oil- and sugar-free ones in some local museli, but haven’t been able to find where to buy them myself. You can try making your own with this recipe, omitting the honey and oil. If you do, let me know how they turn out!
I’d love to hear how you’re enjoying cranberries this year. Share your favorite dishes in the comments!