A glossy, scarlet red, very tart berry, the cranberry belongs to the same genus as the blueberry, Vaccinium, another well-known super food. (Both berries also belong to the food family called Ericaceae, also known as the heath or heather family.) Like blueberries, cranberries can still be found growing as wild shrubs in northern Europe, northern Asia, and North America. When cultivated, however, cranberries are grown on low trailing vines atop great sandy bogs. That’s how we grew them on the Washington coast.
While cranberries have long been valued for their ability to help prevent and treat urinary tract infections, recent studies suggest that they may also promote gastrointestinal and oral health, lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol, aid in recovery from stroke, and even help prevent cancer.
One way they do all this is their ability to fight germs. Bacteria doesn’t stand a chance against cranberries. Several studies show that cranberries can help ward off urinary tract infections (in some cases, even those caused by strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Cranberries also seem to thwart h. pylori (associated with stomach ulcers) and various gum-disease-causing germs.
Antioxidants in cranberries like oligomeric proanthocyanidins, peonidin, anthocyanidin flavonoids, quercetin and cyaniding help prevent cardiovascular diseases by fighting bad cholesterol plaque forming in the blood vessels and the heart.
Cranberries also contain high amounts of phenolic flavonoid phytochemicals known as proanthocyanidins that can protect us against cancer, neurological diseases and aging, inflammatory diseases, bacterial infections and diabetes.
Cranberries are crammed with vitamin C. One cup of cranberry juice can deliver up to 100% of the recommended daily dose of vitamin C. Just make sure to look for a label that says, “100% juice.”
There is evidence that the vitamin C found in cranberries, along with other antioxidants, can help hypertension. In one study, people who drank 2 glasses of low-sugar cranberry juice daily saw a significant drop in their blood pressure.
Cranberries are loaded with water-soluble fiber (the kind that keeps you feeling full). One cup (cooked or raw) contains about 5g fiber and 50 calories, while 1/2 cup of dried has 3.5g and 187 calories.
So, now that you know just how good for you they are, how do you consume more of them?
Juice ‘em. Drink straight or mix with other fruit juices or other beverages. Cranberry juice is also good spiked. Take advantage of cranberries’ high acid content (they have a pH range of 2.3 to 2.5) and use fresh juice from the berries in place of vinegar in salad dressings and marinades.
Try ‘em dried. Toss 1 to 2 tablespoons into oatmeal, salads, couscous, or quinoa. Look for dried berries that are free of preservatives, since they can degrade the berries’ antioxidants. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how they make an amazing addition to any trail mix or just mix dried cranberries with lightly roasted and salted nuts for a delicious snack.
Cook ‘em. Cranberry relish really perks up sandwiches. The berries also add a bright accent to baked goods, wild rice, and meat dishes, especially pork and turkey. We pair them with Swedish meatballs in place of their cousin, the lingonberry. And, cranberries pair amazingly with white chocolate! Just sayin’….
Eat ‘em fresh. During the fall harvest season, we used to pluck them straight off the vine and munch on them while we worked. To balance their extreme tartness, combine fresh cranberries with other fruits such as oranges, apples, pineapple or pears. If desired, add a little fruit juice, honey or maple syrup to chopped fresh cranberries.
For an easy-to-make salad that will immediately become a holiday favorite, place 2 cups fresh berries in your blender or food processor along with 1/2 cup of pineapple chunks, a quartered skinned orange, a sweet apple, and a handful or two of walnuts or pecans. Blend till well mixed but still chunky. Transfer to a large bowl.
A fruit with a short season, fresh cranberries are harvested between Labor Day and Halloween and appear in markets from October through December. Choose berries that have a bright red color, and that are plump and firm to the touch. Cranberries with a deeper red color contain more pigmented antioxidants. Be careful not to use any discolored, bruised or mushy cranberries as they can develop mold and they can transfer it to other berries. Rinse them well before using.
Fresh cranberries will keep for up to 2 months, or cooked for about a month. In both cases, seal tight and refrigerate. They also freeze really well. Once frozen, cranberries may be kept for several years. To freeze, spread fresh cranberries out on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer. In a couple of hours, the fully frozen berries will be ready to transfer to a freezer bag or a container. Don’t forget to date the bag or container before returning to the freezer.
Now that you know how crazy good for you cranberries can be, don’t just limit them to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Eat them all year long.
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