Cranberries: health benefits
Photo Credit: Nikao Media
by Agnes Chung
Some people may argue that you can’t have turkey without cranberry sauce. I am not a cranberry sauce fan, but I like the holiday berry for its year-round health benefits. It’s a superfood packed with preventative properties.
In North America, Indigenous people have long known about the cranberry’s culinary and curative attributes. They mixed crushed cranberries with dried deer meat and melted fat to make pemmican – a primeval protein bar.
Cranberry juice was used as a medicinal ingredient in poultices to extract poison from arrow wounds. Early settlers ate them to ward off scurvy. They named it “craneberry”- after its small, pink blossoms which resemble a Sandhill crane’s head.
The plant is a low-growing evergreen shrub of the Vaccinium genus. The two main cultivated species are the European cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) and the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) whose size doubles that of the European fruit. The native North American perennial vine thrives in sandy bogs and marshes.
Small and tart-tasting, fresh cranberry is low in calories and sugar, rich in vitamins (A, C, B1, B2, B6 and E) and fibre. The superfood contains a complex and rich source of phenolic phytonutrients including phenolic acids; flavonoids: anthocyanins, flavonols and flavan-3-ol (proanthocyanidins or PACs); and terpenes.
Anthocyanins, the water-soluble pigments ,give cranberry its red colour. The berry seeds contain omega 3, 6 and 9 essential fatty acids, vitamin E, plant sterols, phospholipids and flavonoids. Researchers found that PACs, the most abundant flavonoids in red cranberry fruits, possess anti-microbial, anti-adhesion, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Flavonoids, a class of polyphenols are plant-based micronutrients loaded with powerful antioxidants that promote wellness, prevent and/or lower risk of infections, cancer, digestive issues and cardiovascular diseases.
Cranberry health benefits
Immune system, skin and brain: Cranberries are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants that help boost immunity and improve skin and brain health.
Glycemic control: Impact starch digestion in the digestive tract, and delay glucose release into the bloodstream. This may help reduce blood sugar spikes and lower the side effects of diabetes.
Cancer: Antioxidants neutralize harmful free radicals which have potential effects on cancer prevention and progression. A 2016 study on animal models supported the effectiveness of cranberries as inhibitors of seven different cancers: bladder, colon, esophageal, brain, lymphoma, prostate and stomach. Conclusive results are yet to be proven in human studies. Nonetheless, the potential of cranberries as cancer inhibitors look promising.
Cardiovascular health: Studies suggest that bioactive compounds in cranberries can help optimize blood cholesterol levels by reducing oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, improving the flexibility of arteries, and lower inflammation.
Digestive health: Inhibit the colonization of Helcobacter pylori bacteria in the stomach, and lower risks of intestinal inflammation which can cause stomach ulcers.
Gum diseases: The flavonoid PACs in cranberry fruits may be potential therapeutic agents for the prevention and management of periodontitis, according to a 2012 study.
Urinary tract infections
Cranberry juice cannot treat urinary tract infections (UTIs). Research only suggests that cranberry consumption may protect UTI development or lower re-occurrence. Pure, unsweetened cranberry juice, cranberry extract, or cranberry supplements may help prevent repeated UTIs in women, but the benefit is small, cited HealthLinkBC.
Side effects and precautions
• Drinking too much juice can cause mild stomach upset and diarrhea.
• Aspirin allergy: Cranberry fruit contains high salicylic acid, a key ingredient in aspirin. Minimize consumption if you are allergic to aspirin.
• Diabetes: Stick to non-sweetened or artificially sweetened juices to avoid sugar spikes.
• Stomach lining inflammation: Cranberry juice may increase how much vitamin B12 the body can absorb for people with atrophic gastritis and low stomach acid.
• Kidney stones: Cranberry juice concentrate and extracts contain large amounts of oxalate. Minimize consumption if you have a history of kidney stones.
• Medications: Check with your doctor to make sure cranberry consumption does not interact with your prescribed medications.
Maximizing cranberry benefits
Select products that are not diluted from concentrate and contain no added sugar. Fresh cranberries provide the most phytonutrients. To make berries more palatable, add them to your smoothie with other naturally sweetened fruits.
A good quality, ripe cranberry bounces. The small air chambers inside the berry cause it to bounce and float in water, said executive director Mike Wallis of BC Cranberry Growers’ Association. Wallis added that flooding the fields is a quicker harvesting method than dry picking. Fresh cranberry consists of almost 90 percent water. Hence, frozen berries should not be thawed as it causes the fruit to break down turning into soft berries.
Wallis noted that Quebec, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are Canada’s main cranberry producing provinces.
The United States, together with Canada and Chile, produced over 98 percent of the world’s cranberries in 2016.