Real Food Profile: Cranberries

Love them or hate them, cranberries can offer an abundance of health benefits due to their unique nutritional profile. Learn how to reap the rewards while avoiding the pitfalls of serving this tart fruit.

On Thanksgiving tables all over America, there’s a sweet and tart gem of a fruit that seems to shine only at this time of year…. cranberries! 

Cranberry sauce can be a delicious yet sometimes divisive addition to the Thanksgiving meal. Some people love it, while others would rather do without. But what makes this beautiful seasonal fruit worth consideration beyond its acquired taste is its potential benefit to your health.

High in vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin K and manganese, these berries owe their red hue to the naturally occurring compounds that give deep red, purple, and blue fruits and vegetables their color. Aside from catching your eye, these compounds are known antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. So…eating dark red fruits like cranberries can help reduce the risk of chronic disease by reducing inflammation in the body.

If you’ve ever crunched on a raw cranberry, you’re familiar with its tart, mouth puckering taste. This is thanks to the presence of beneficial sharp and bitter antioxidants. Of these, cranberries have even more than blueberries! Whether in relation to UTI prevention, improved cardiovascular health, gastrointestinal health, prevention from cancer, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and other diseases, the high levels of antioxidants found in cranberries have been shown to have a beneficial effect on health.

Cranberries are particularly rich in a unique category of polyphenols (plant compounds with antioxidant properties) called proanthocyanidins. Proanthocyanidins inhibit the binding of the infectious bacteria E. coli in the bladder, thus preventing UTI’s. And that’s not all; proanthocyanidins may also be responsible for inhibiting bacterial formation in the mouth, which helps protect against gum disease, tooth decay and oral cancer. Additionally, proanthocyanidins help reduce the “bad” microbes that can live in the gut, thereby (in theory, at least) reducing risk for colon and GI cancers.

And adding cranberries to your diet during the cold and flu season may even help reduce your risk for catching those illnesses, due to the fruit’s antiviral properties (research findings indicate  cranberries can directly inhibit forms of the flu virus itself).

This is all is great news for our health, but beware: It can be a challenge to incorporate cranberries in your diet without a lot of added sugar. U.S. stores are stocked with familiar cans of cranberry jelly just waiting to grace our Thanksgiving tables. But there are just 4 ingredients in those canned cranberry sauces: cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and water.  Alas…It’s probably best to shun that jiggly cylinder and look for less processed cranberry alternatives!

Dried, chopped, juiced or jarred, thankfully, there are healthful ways to add these deep red powerhouses to your diet. Try smoothies with cranberries combined with sweeter fruits. Add dried cranberries to more savory dishes like holiday stuffing or incorporate fresh cranberries into your baking. Dishes like cranberry-apple crumble or homemade cranberry scones feature whole fresh cranberries while leaving you in control over the type and amount of sugar used.  And…if you can manage to make your own cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, you can enjoy superior health benefits, and possibly win over some of the haters. 

So while you’re expressing your gratitude for the food on your table and the people around it on this Thanksgiving, we hope you’ll be thankful also for knowledge that helps you nourish yourself with real food.

Here is my own family’s recipe for Homemade Cranberry Sauce.  It’s not sugar-free, but it does put you in control of the sweetening.

Note: You can make this sweeter or tarter by adjusting the amount of sugar used. You can also use maple syrup or honey instead of sugar.

Ingredients:

4 cups fresh cranberries

1 large navel orange (peel and juice)

1 cinnamon stick

Pinch of salt

Approximately 1 cup sugar or real maple syrup or honey (adjust amount to taste)

In a saucepan combine cranberries, juice of one whole orange, the peel of one whole orange, sugar or maple syrup or honey and one cinnamon stick.

Bring to a boil. Simmer for about 15 minutes until all the berries have burst and are broken down and the liquid has thickened. If while cooking, it seems there is not enough liquid, add a bit of water. Pull out the cinnamon stick and the orange peels. Adjust taste with additional sweetener or additional spices like cloves, nutmeg or more cinnamon if desired.

For Whole Cranberry Sauce: Place berries in a serving bowl and refrigerate. Enjoy once chilled

For Jellied Cranberry Sauce: Mash all the berries with a potato masher. Place a large sieve over a larger bowl. Pour the chunky, mashed cranberry sauce into the sieve and press as much of it through the sieve as possible, straining out all the skins and lumpy bits. Place the smooth sauce in a covered serving dish or jar with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight so that this jellied version has time to set up.

Homemade Cranberry Sauce can be made ahead and stored up to a couple of days in the fridge.

Happy Thanksgiving!

References:

  1. Nemzer, Boris V., Fadwa Al-Taher, Alexander Yashin, Igor Revelsky, and Yakov Yashin. 2022. “Cranberry: Chemical Composition, Antioxidant Activity and Impact on Human Health: Overview” Molecules 27, no. 5: 1503. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules27051503
  2. Pappas, E., & Schaich, K. M. (2009). Phytochemicals of Cranberries and Cranberry Products: Characterization, Potential Health Effects, and Processing Stability. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 49(9), 741–781.doi:10.1080/10408390802145377 https://doi.org/10.1080/10408390802145377
  3. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/benefits-of-cranberries/

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Real Food Profile: Cranberries

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