Monday, November 16, 2009


Cranberries have many health benefits

Think cranberries, and you probably think of the holidays. Whatever your association with fall fruit, an impressive body of evidence proves that starting your day with a shot of cranberry juice, or tossing the dried berries in cereal or salads can bring health benefits any time of the year.

Long before the colonists first arrived in the new land, the American Indians were using cranberries. The Native Americans understood cranberries and used them not only as food, but also as dye and for medicinal purposes. Primary among their uses was as a poultice to heal wounds. Although you will not hear the recommendation to rub cranberries on our scrapes and cuts today, you may have heard of drinking cranberries juice to ward off urinary tract infections (UTI’s) or even that they are a good source of antioxidants for cancer prevention or heart health.

Though cranberries are tiny, they are potent. Packed with nutrition, they are also high in fiber, like their relative, the blueberry. They also contain antioxidants in abundance which has antibacterial properties in the body and potentially can help improve cholesterol profiles.

A study conducted at the Harvard Medical School determined that regular consumption of cranberry juice reduced the amount of bacteria in the urinary tracts of elderly women. These researchers concluded that something specific to the cranberry actually prevented bacteria from adhering to the lining of the bladder.

A few years later, researchers from Rutgers University identified the specific components in cranberries that produce health benefits. These condensed tannins or proatnothocyanidins (PACs) from the cranberry fruit prevent Escherichia coli (e.coli), the primary bacteria responsible for UTI’s, from attaching to the urinary tract.

Thus, the bacteria are flushed from the urinary tract rather than being allowed to stick, grow and lead to infection. Cranberries can not be used to treat an existing infection, but, drinking plenty of water every day and consuming cranberries on a regular basis may help prevent reoccurrence.

Most of the research with heart health and the antioxidant flavonoids has involved red wine or tea, not cranberries. The few studies that have been done with cranberries show that they have the potential to increase HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Getting the nutritional benefits of cranberries through food is recommended versus taking it in a pill form. Cranberry extract is considered a dietary supplement. Dietary supplements are not regulated, so you can’t be sure what you are getting. If you want the benefit of cranberries, eat the real fruit or drink cranberry juice.

Keep in mind cranberry juice is 100% juice; the cocktail version is about 25% juice and about 75% sugar. Try cranberry juice with other fruit juices if the 100% juice version is too tart for your taste buds.

Dried cranberries are coated with sugar and are caloric dense so keep portion control in mind. 1/3 cup dried cranberries are considered 2 fruits servings with about 130-140 kcal compared to 1⁄2 cup whole berries have only 22 kcal. Try tossing some fresh cranberries into your cereal, salad, or making you own cranberry sauce mixed with apples, pears or oranges. They can be added to muffins, breads or even a fruited salsa.

Fresh cranberries are generally available mid-September through December and most abundant during peak harvest season in October and November. Cranberries can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four weeks. Buy fresh cranberries in season, and then freeze them up to 18 months to enjoy them all year long.

So this holiday season, pick up some cranberries and incorporate them into your diet and grab a couple extra bags to put in your freezer to get you through until next fall. They are tasty, tiny, tart and good for you.

Sarah Hospod is a registered dietitian in the Food and Nutrition Department at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Hospod and all of the Healthy Living columnists at or comment on their blog below.

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