Nutrition 101: Cranberries – Full of Health Benefits or Just a Holiday Tradition?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
As holiday time approaches, many of us will be planning our menus for the dinner table. Cranberries are a favorite in many families. Have you ever wondered whether cranberries are as nutritious as some say or if they are just part of the tradition? Let's take a closer look and find out.

The cranberry is one of three fruits native to North America that are now commercially grown. Native Americans first discovered the versatility of the wild berry as a food, fabric dye and healing agent. Around 1620, Pilgrims learned to use cranberries from the Native Americans, and in 1683, cranberry juice was first produced by settlers. American whalers and mariners carried cranberries on their voyages to prevent scurvy, which was a common problem due to their limited Vitamin C intake while out to sea.

Despite what most of us think, cranberries aren't grown in water; they're grown on vines in bogs, which are wet, sandy areas. However, come harvest time, the bogs are flooded so the buoyant berries (they contain pockets of air) can easily be gathered. Cranberries are distinctive berries, requiring wet and acidic peat soil, plenty of fresh water, and sand. Their growing season, which starts in April and lasts seven months, includes a dormancy period in winter that's necessary for the fruiting buds to mature. With such growing criteria, only certain places in the world are suitable for growing cranberries. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are leaders in cranberry production.

Cranberries, or Vaccinium macrocarpon, are about 80% water, 10% carbohydrates and 10% other organic compounds. They contain three acids: quinic, malic, and citric. It is these acids that have long been thought to help cure or prevent urinary tract infections. A few years ago, however, it was discovered that other Vaccinium macrocarpon species (blueberries) were also beneficial related to UTI's. Both cranberries and blueberries contain an organic compound called phenol. When a number of phenols are joined together, they form a group called a proanthocyanindins, which inhibit the Escherichia coli bacteria from attaching to the lining of the urinary tract. Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is the number one cause of UTI’s.

Studies have shown that both vaccinium macrocarpon juice, as well as cranberry tablets, has been equally effective in preventing UTI's. However, substantial studies to support claims of macrocarpon berries or juices treating UTI’s once they have occurred are limited. Cranberries have also been investigated for numerous other medicinal benefits, such as fighting cancer, stroke and viral infections. The National Institutes of Health is funding research to further investigate the effects of cranberries on heart disease and yeast infections. Some preliminary research indicates that drinking cranberry juice daily may increase levels of HDL, or good cholesterol and reduce levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol. Likewise, there is some indication that they may assist with the prevention of H . pylori infection, which causes gastrointestinal ulcers and dental plaque. Since research is conducted largely on whole berries, additional research is needed on cranberry juice cocktail and other versions of cranberries related to effectiveness.

Besides showing some health benefits, cranberries are also a nutritious way to get one of your recommended fruit servings each day. One cup (95 grams) of whole fresh cranberries provides about 44 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrates. They also provide about 4 grams of fiber with no cholesterol, minimal fat, limited protein as well as many vitamins and minerals. So perhaps the biggest battle you will have this holiday season isn't whether you will have cranberries but in which form you will eat them. Here are some creative recipes that may help your family identify a new holiday favorite.

What are your favorite ways to include cranberries in your diet?

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Dried cranberries are a GREAT snack! They're also good in oatmeal, cereal, or yogurt. Report
Thank you for the info! I also solved a UTI with a cranberry smoothie! Report
I used to have recurrent UTIs and had to see urologists, do a series of lab exams, ultrasounds… Then one day I discovered the cranberries properties.
Since then, I take one cranberry pill every night and I never had a problem again.
It works!!!!
If you can't handle cranberries, my urologist recommends blueberries. In fact she prefers that her patients use blueberries because for many people, cranberries are too harsh. They can cause fissures in the urinary tract that can lead to more infection. Go with what works best for you. Report
This is my first year to buy fresh cranberries and cook them. They are delicious! Report
I haven't met a cranberry that I didn't like! I put dried cranberries in oatmeal or just eat them as is. Can't find fresh or dried go for cranberry juice. I drink the diet cranberry juice as there is not as much sugar because I am a diabetic. Report
I love cranberries, especially ground with oranges (with the peel) and sweetener. I'll have to try it with splenda. Report
I make my own cranberry sauce. Try adding apples & apple juice concentrate. Doesn't require added sugar. Report
I buy dried cranberries, and put them in everything: scones, stuffing, fruitcake, applesauce, my morning oatmeal! Report
My favorite way to eat cranberries is to make a snack mix with Cheerios, cranberries and walnuts. It makes a healthy snack that I can eat piece by piece so that it lasts a long time. Report
I once had a UTI and the doctor recommended that before I take the antibiotics he prescribed(because they would make my birth control meds in-effective) that I try drinking alot of cranberry juice, as it turns out I didn't need to have the anti-biotics after all! cranberries are amazing! Report
I'd like to go out in the water and help harvest cranberries, because it looks like FUN! Report
I LUV cranberries!!! Report
I love turkey & cranberries!!! It is one of my favorite things. To keep on track at Thanksgiving I fill 2/3 rds of my plate with salad & green vegetables (hopefully with light dressing and little or no butter) and eat tons of turkey and cranberries. So I basically fill up on veggies & protein which makes it very easy to either skip or have very light portions of the carb/fat loaded mashed potatoes, stuffing & desserts. Report
I use the cranberry tablets every day. I, also, make my own cranberry sauce so I can have it year round. I use dried cranberries in my homemade trail mix instead of raisins because I like them better. Report
I like taking dried cranberries and making my own cranberry sauce. I use orange juice, cinnamin, nutmag and a pinch of almond extract. Some times I add a box of fresh blueberries.

I love this over plain yogurt with sliced almonds. Report
I love all of the fresh cranberries out this time of year. Love to make cranberry bread, muffins and relish.

Lisa Report
We love craisins at our house, sprinkle them in salads, they are delicious! Also great in baked goods -- muffins, cookies, etc. Report
I like cranberry juice if it's mixed with another juice. Cran-apple is great! I also like cranberry sauce and candy made with cranberries. No exactly healthy, I know! Report
We have a cranberry bog on the edge of our property, we spend most of thanksgiving harvesting them, the whole family gathers to pick them and there are enough to last all winter. They are so easy to freeze. I use them when cooking chicken, right in the same baking dish, gives your dish that festive flavour. Report
I will have to try dry cranberries. I just went to a cranberry festival and actually saw them harvested. My picture is of me standing in a dry bog. It was due to be flooded and harvested in the next week. It was so cool to see the bogs flooded and the sea of red berries floating on top. Report
They're pretty difficult to eat without added sugar, so I usually opt out, unless they are dried (in a granola or oatmeal) or baked into a bran muffin. Report
I love to drink cranberrie juice and its good for infections! Report
It's so hard to eat them because they're so bitter. Good to know about them though. Report
Cranberries are safe with me. I don't eat anything with cranberries in it. But it is good to know about the info for my family. Report
I am currently in the hospital (a long story involving hurricanes, medevacs and cholera) and the only liquid I am allowed to drink right now is cranberry juice (not cocktail, 100% juice).
It is allowed as the goal is to get my GI tract back on track and free of the pathogens that got me here in the first place...I have to drink a pint an hour at the moment.
I have always loved cranberry juice for its anti UTI properties ... little did I know it was good for the colon as well.
j. Report
I get the Total cereal that has dried cranberries in it. I do like cranberry grape juice and of course cranberry juice.. YUM. Report
My annual Cranberry Chutney day is coming up. Can't wait! Report
I love cranberries. I could easily eat a cup of them but the dried ones are sweeter and you only need to eat 1/4 cup of the dried ones. I think most people are used to eating a lot of sugar in their diet and so these berries do not taste as sweet to them. Also most of the so-called cranberry juice people drink is really just highly sweetened and watered down cranberry juice cocktail. Report
I find your article very interesting and informative about cranberries. I know that cranberries are grow in Massachussett in bogs. I went to Carver Maa. a couple of years ago. It's very interesting to see the men working the bogs to get the cranberries. Report
Good article. I like cranberries but haven't really purchased them whole. I might have to do that. I remember my Grandma making a Cranberry salad at Thanksgiving and it was good. Report
One of my favorite berries always looking for new ways to use them. Report
i make a cranberry mold wit fresh whole berries, lots of fruits , veggies and nuts, i'll be posing in sparkrecipes soon. Report
I have two recipies with cranberries that I absolutely love: Lemon-Cranberry Muffins, and Orange-Cranberry-Oatmeal cookies. See my profile for the recipes.

I enjoy the dried cranberries, but wish there were more options to how they are sweetened. I'll put them in my oatmeal along with raisins instead of sugar. Yum. Report
I love cranberries, especially the cranberry orange relish mother used to make back in the 60's, and then I made in the 70's. Now you can buy it. I also really like the orange-flavored craisins, and like to put them in a trail mix I make with honey-roasted soy nuts, sunflower seeds, and some other ingredients.. Report
I really never have eaten cranberries before. I think I am going to try the dried ones in some total one morning and see if I can do that I don't get my fruit in daily so maybe this will help Report
I love emmmmmm. Report
I eat the dried ones & I only like the Ocean Spray brand. Sometimes I have them alone. I've also added them to homemade granola after I bake it. Mmmm Report
Interesting article, although Massachusetts is not the largest producer. It's Wisconsin. They produce the majority of Ocean Spray's berries (I forget the exact %) in addition to providing other sources.

I wish I liked them. I can't get over the aftertaste unfortunately. Report
Any way I can get them! Cranberry juice, jellied cranberry sauce, cranberry muffins, and my all time favorite, the cranberry bliss bar from Starbucks. I used to pick up one every day on my way to work when they were "in season". Now I have one a season as a special treat ... they are loaded in calories! Report
I drink the cran- ______ juices, every day...

Will have to look at getting more! Report
Nantucket Cranberry Cake! Delicious! Report
I cook cranberries and slivered almonds in my greenbeans. Report
Cranberries really help when you have a sweet tooth. Report
I love dried cranberries in salads and jello salads. I love fresh cranberry relish, just ground up cranberries/navel oranges and some splenda or agave nectar... maybe some nuts if I feel like splurging! I like to buy an extra bag or two over the holidays to stick in the freezer for later... not as good as fresh but better than not getting any over the winter! Report
I love cranberries or raisins on branflakes for breakfast - cranberry juice is also really refreshing with a great tase Report
I love dried cranberries and cranberry juice. Report
Cranberries are a staple in my diet. In the Fall, I love getting fresh cranberries and using them. The rest of the year, I use dried cranberries mixed with nuts for snacks or in salads, etc. Report
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