When Americans think of Thanksgiving, they probably first think of savory dishes like turkey and stuffing or maybe vegetables like sweet potatoes or Brussels sprouts. Yet for the past hundred years or so, one fruit has found a home on dinner tables during our biggest feast day of the year: the cranberry. While cranberry sauce may be the go-to form on Thanksgiving, cranberry juice, cranberry extract, raw cranberries, and dried cranberries can all be used in a variety of ways. Moreover, though, the cranberry is a nutritional powerhouse that provides a number of important health benefits.
What to Know About Cranberries
Cranberries are the familiar small red berries that come from a species of evergreen shrubs in the Ericaceae family, the same family as blueberries and huckleberries. The plant (Vaccinium oxycoccos) is native to North America and has a long and rich history of cultivation by various Native American tribes. These early indigenous farmers were the first to recognize that the cranberry had both culinary and medicinal value; in addition to being used for food and as a red dye, they were also seen as an effective treatment for bladder and kidney diseases.
As European settlers arrived in North America, they learned of the tangy berry from indigenous tribes and began incorporating them into their diets. In fact, the name “cranberry” is inspired by the plant’s pink blossoms, which were thought by early Dutch colonists to resemble the head and bill of a crane. Today, the vast majority (nearly 80%) of the world’s supply of cranberry products is produced in the United States and Canada, and the remaining production (about 20%) comes from Chile.
Though they can be eaten raw, the somewhat sharp and bitter taste of fresh cranberries makes them less palatable for many people. In fact, only about 5% of cranberries are harvested to be eaten raw; the other 95% is used to make fruit juices, juice blends, or dried fruit products. As noted earlier, one of the most famous uses is cranberry sauce; the tartness of the berry seems to pair well with the umami flavors of meats like poultry and pork. In juice form, they can be used in various beverages, and when dried they can fit well in baked goods, snacks, seasoning blends, and pet food products.
Nutrition Facts of Cranberries
Cranberries have sometimes been referred to as a “superfood” because of their robust nutritional profile. In addition to containing a number of important nutrients, cranberries also have an excellent ratio of calories to nutritional value; for instance, one cup of raw cranberries has only 46 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrates (including 4 grams of fiber), 1 gram of protein, and a negligible amount of fat. Below are some of the main nutrients in cranberries:
Vitamins (% Daily Value)
- vitamin A (9%)
- vitamin C (17%)
- vitamin K (5%)
- niacin (1%)
- riboflavin (2%)
Minerals (% Daily Value)
- calcium (1%)
- phosphorus (2%)
- potassium (2%)
- manganese (17%)
- magnesium (2%)
Health Benefits of Cranberries
The essential nutrients contained in cranberries are a major part of why they are considered a superfood. While eating cranberries alone won’t be enough, they can be an important addition to a balanced diet. One of the major sources of further health benefits, though, is the antioxidant properties of polyphenols like anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, compounds that bolster the body’s protection against free radicals and oxidative stress. Collectively, the high amount of nutrients and antioxidants in cranberries can provide a range of health benefits:
- Digestive health: Cranberries are a good source of dietary fiber, which aids in the passage of food through the digestive tract by adding bulk to the stool. This promotes regular bowel movements and reduces the chances of developing gastrointestinal symptoms like constipation and diarrhea.
- Heart health: The relatively high concentration of fiber also makes cranberries a heart-healthy food. Both dietary fiber and antioxidants are believed to help improve cholesterol levels by lowering LDL cholesterol and raising HDL cholesterol. Additionally, cranberries contain minerals like potassium and calcium that can lead to lower blood pressure. The net effect of many of these substances is a lower risk of heart disease and a healthier circulatory system.
- Bacterial infections: There is promising evidence that a diet rich in cranberries may be able to prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). Cranberries contain compounds known as proanthocyanidins that are believed to help prevent certain types of bacteria from causing adhering to the lining of the urinary tract. These compounds appear to be especially effective against Escherichia coli (usually just E. coli).
- Dental health: Some of the compounds that help prevent UTIs can also promote good dental health. In addition to preventing the spread of bacteria in the mouth that can cause tooth decay, there is evidence that cranberries have an anti-inflammatory effect that reduces the risk factors for gum disease.
- Skin health: The various antioxidants in cranberries can help prevent oxidative stress from promoting premature aging and wrinkles. Also, the vitamin C content found in cranberries is essential for the synthesis of collagen, a protein that helps maintain the skin's structure, elasticity, and firmness. Adequate collagen production can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Weight management: Having a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is important for overall health and wellness, but it’s also a great choice for a weight loss plan. Cranberries themselves are naturally low in calories, and many of the health benefits associated with them also apply to cranberry juice. For maximal benefit (especially those who track carb counts), look for types without added sugar or that have been sweetened with artificial sweeteners.
Potential Side Effects
Cranberries are generally safe to consume as part of a well-balanced diet, but there are some potential concerns for certain people. For people on blood thinners like warfarin, for example, there is a minor chance that cranberries can increase the risk of bleeding. Also, though cranberries were once thought of as a way to help prevent kidney stones, there is now evidence that it might actually increase the risk; this is mostly due to high mineral content that can form into calcium oxalate, one of the main drivers of kidney stone formation.
Contact Silva Today
With Thanksgiving almost upon us, cranberries are about to be on the menu again for a lot of Americans. Beyond being a tangy, bright addition to Turkey Day, though, cranberries are a source of important nutrients that provide valuable health benefits. For commercial food producers, cranberries are a perfect balance of versatility and flavor, and they can play a starring role in anything from baked goods to beverages. If you’d like to learn more about our products or the benefits of partnering with us, please contact the team at Silva today.