The World's Healthiest Foods
Cranberries

A cousin of the blueberry, this very tart, bright red berry can still be found growing wild as a shrub, but when cultivated, is grown on low trailing vines in great sandy bogs. The American Cranberry, the variety most cultivated in the northern United States and southern Canada, produces a larger berry than the wild cranberry or the European variety.

Cranberries have long been valued for their ability to help prevent and treat urinary tract infections. Now, recent studies suggest that this native American berry may also promote gastrointestinal and oral health, prevent the formation of kidney stones, lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol, aid in recovery from stroke, and even help prevent cancer.

Fresh cranberries, which contain the highest levels of beneficial nutrients, are at their peak from October through December, just in time to add their festive hue, tart tangy flavor and numerous health protective effects to your holiday meals. When cranberries' short fresh season is past, rely on cranberry juice and dried cranberries to help make every day throughout the year a holiday from disease.

 


Health Benefits

Protection against Urinary Tract Infection

Cranberries have been valued for their ability to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections for hundreds of years. In 1994, a placebo-controlled study of 153 elderly women was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that gave scientific credibility to claims of cranberries effectiveness in preventing urinary tract infection. In this study, the women given cranberry juice had less than half the number of urinary infections as the control group (only 42% as many, to be precise), who received a placebo imitation “cranberry” drink. The daily dose of cranberry juice in this initial study was just 300 milliliters (about one and one-quarter cups). Since then, a number of other studies have also confirmed anecdotal tales of cranberry’s ability to both treat and prevent urinary tract infections. In most of these later studies, subjects drank about 16 ounces (2 cups) of cranberry juice daily.

How does cranberry juice help prevent urinary tract infections? It acidifies the urine, contains an antibacterial agent called hippuric acid, and also contains other compounds that reduce the ability of E. coli bacteria to adhere to the walls of the urinary tract. Before an infection can start, a pathogen must first latch on to and then penetrate the mucosal surface of the urinary tract walls, but cranberries prevent such adherence, so the E. coli is washed away in the urine and voided. Since E. coli is pathogen responsible for 80-90% of urinary tract infections, the protection afforded by cranberries is quite significant. The most recent studies attempting to explain cranberries’ protective effects on urinary tract health were presented at the Experimental Biology Conference held in April 2002. Amy Howell, research scientist at the Marucci Center for Blueberry Cranberry Research at Rutgers University and Jess Reed, professor of nutrition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, compared the proanthycyanins (active compounds) in cranberries to those found in grapes, apples, green tea and chocolate. They discovered that “the cranberry's proanthocyanidins are structurally different than the proanthocyanidins found in the other plant foods tested, which may explain why cranberry has unique bacterial anti-adhesion activity and helps to maintain urinary tract health.”

8-Ounces Better than 4 to Prevent Bladder Infections

Cranberry's protective effects against bladder infections may be dose responsive, with 8-ounces of cranberry juice being twice as effective as 4-ounces, suggests preliminary research presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America by Kalpana Gupta from the University of Washington.

Gupta reported the details of a very small trial in which three volunteers were given 27% cranberry juice cocktail. Urine samples, collected before and 4-6 hours after drinking the cranberry juice, were combined with human bladder cells and incubated with Escherichia coli (the most common cause of bladder infections). The number of bacteria able to adhere to the bladder cells (the first step a pathogen must achieve to be able to cause infection) was significantly reduced in the urine of all women who drank the cranberry juice cocktail, and the effect was doubled when the women drank eight ounces of cranberry rather than four ounces. Cranberry's protective effect is thought to be due to a specific type of tannin, found only in cranberries and blueberries, which interferes with projections on the bacterium, preventing it from sticking to the walls of the bladder and causing infection. However, once the bacteria have established a hold, it's best to seek medical advice. No evidence shows cranberry juice is able to cure an established bladder infection, which can lead to a more serious kidney infection. The researchers plan further studies in a larger group of women to investigate the optimal amount and frequency of cranberry juice consumption.(December 17, 2004)

Cranberries Combat Genital Herpes

Laboratory studies published in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Science, Food and Agriculture have shown that a phytonutrient isolated from cranberries is effective against the herpes simplex virus (HSV-2), the cause of genital herpes. In a manner similar to the way the tannins in cranberries protect against bladder infection by preventing bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall, cranberries' antiviral compound, proanthocyanidin A-1, inhibits the attachment and penetration of the herpes virus. (december 17, 2004)

A Pro-biotic Berry for Gastrointestinal and Oral Health?

Not only kidney infections, but the majority of infectious diseases are initiated by the adhesion of pathogenic organisms to the tissues of the host. Cranberries ability to block this adhesion has been demonstrated not only against E. coli, the bacterium most commonly responsible for urinary tract infection, but also for a number of other common pathogens.

Delegates at the 2002 American Chemical Society meeting and Experimental Biology Conference were also informed about cranberries’ ability to act as a natural probiotic, supporting the health-promoting bacteria that grow in the human gastro-intestinal tract while killing off the bacteria that promote infections and foodborne illnesses.

One study presented by Leslie Plhak from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that whole frozen cranberries contained compounds able to inhibit the growth of common foodborne pathogens including Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli 0157:H7, but enhanced the growth of the beneficial bacterium Lactobacillus fermentum by as much as 25 times.

Another test tube study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition in 2002 indicated that a constituent in cranberry juice prevents the bacterium responsible for most gastric ulcers, Helicobacter pylori, from adhering to gastric epithelial cells (the cells that form the lining of the stomach).

Also published in this same journal in 2002 was a study noting that compounds isolated from cranberry juice actually dissolved the aggregates formed by many oral bacteria and was effective in decreasing the salivary level of Streptococus mutans, the major cause of tooth decay. Among the other fruits tested, none had a similar effect except blueberries, whose protective action was much weaker that that of cranberries.

Prevention of Kidney Stone Formation

Cranberries contain quinic acid, an acidic compound that is unusual in that it is not broken down in the body but is excreted unchanged in the urine. The presence of quinic acid causes the urine to become just slightly acidic—a level of acidity that is, however, sufficient to prevent calcium and phosphate ions from joining to form insoluble stones. In patients who have had recurrent kidney stones, cranberry juice has been shown to reduce the amount of ionized calcium in their urine by more than 50%—a highly protective effect since in the U.S., 75-85% of kidney stones are composed of calcium salts.

In one recent study evaluating the effect of cranberry juice on kidney stone formation, study subjects were divided into two groups, one of which drank 2 cups of cranberry juice diluted with 6 cups water each day for 2 weeks, while the other group drank tap water for the same period. After a 2 week period in which neither group drank any cranberry juice, the groups were switched, so that those who had drunk cranberry juice drank only tap water, while those who had drunk tap water consumed 2 cups cranberry juice diluted with 6 cups tap water daily for an additional 2 weeks. In both groups, drinking cranberry juice was found to significantly and uniquely alter three key urinary risk factors for the better: oxalate and phosphate excretion decreased; citrate excretion increased; and the relative supersaturation of calcium oxalate was significantly lower.

In another trial that evaluated the influence of cranberry, plum and blackcurrant juice on urinary stone risk factors, cranberry juice decreased the urinary pH (made the urine more acidic), and increased the excretion of oxalic acid and the relative supersaturation for uric acid. The researchers concluded that cranberry juice could be useful in the treatment of brushite (calcium) and struvite (non-calcium) stones as well as urinary tract infection.

Cholesterol-Lowering

After test tube research conducted at the University of Scranton demonstrated that cranberries’ antioxidants could protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, and animal research at three other universities provided evidence that cranberries can decrease levels of total cholesterol and LDL (low density or “bad” cholesterol), a human study has also corroborated these positive results.

The three month study funded by the U.S. Cranberry Institute was presented in March of 2003 at the 225th national meeting of the American Chemical Society. Researchers measured cholesterol levels in 19 subjects with high cholesterol after a fasting, baseline blood sampling, followed by monthly samplings. Ten of the subjects were given cranberry juice with artificial sweetener, while the other subjects drank cranberry juice with no added sugars. Like typical supermarket cranberry juices, the drinks all contained approximately 27% pure cranberry juice by volume. Each subject drank one 8-ounce glass of juice a day for the first month, then two glasses a day for the next month, and finally, three glasses a day during the third month of the study. Subjects were not monitored with respect to exercise, diet and alcohol consumption.

Although no changes occurred in their overall cholesterol levels, study subjects’ HDL (good) cholesterol increased by an average of 10% after drinking three glasses of cranberry juice per day—an increase that, based on known epidemiological data on heart disease, corresponds to approximately a 40% reduction in heart disease risk.

Similarly, subjects’ plasma antioxidant capacity, a measure of the total amount of antioxidants available in the body, was significantly increased—by as much as 121% after two or three servings of juice per day. Increased antioxidant levels are also associated with a decreased risk of heart disease.

While the mechanism by which cranberry juice changes cholesterol levels has not been clearly established, the researchers have theorized that the effect is due to the fruit's high levels of polyphenols, a type of potent antioxidant.

Antioxidant Protection

Studies conducted at the University of Scranton, PA, and funded by the Cranberry Institute, a trade association for cranberry growers in the US and Canada, have revealed cranberries to be phytochemical powerhouses packed with five times the antioxidant content of broccoli. When compared to 19 other common fruits, cranberries were found to contain the highest level of antioxidant phenols.

Other studies presented at the 223rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society in April 2002 also showed that cranberries have among the highest levels of phenols of commonly consumed fruits. One study presented at the meetings by biochemist Yuegang Zuo from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth looked at 20 different fruit juices and found that cranberry juice had the most phenols and the highest radical scavenging capacity of all of them.

The most recent study to compare levels of phenolic compounds in common fruits, which was conducted at Cornell University and published in the December 2002 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry also confirmed that cranberries had the highest phenolic content of the fruits studied. Cranberries were followed in descending order by apple, red grape, strawberry, pineapple, banana, peach, lemon, orange, pear and grapefruit.

Cancer Prevention

Also at the April 2002 national meeting of the American Chemical Society, Catherine Neto, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, presented research on several newly discovered compounds in cranberries that were toxic to a variety of cancer tumor cell lines, including lung, cervical, prostate, breast and leukemia cancer cells. The Cornell study mentioned above that confirmed cranberries as having the highest levels of antioxidants among common fruits also found that cranberries had the strongest ability to inhibit the proliferation of human liver cancer cells.

For cancer prevention, enjoy whole cranberries, not just cranberry juice. Cranberry presscake (the material remaining after squeezing juice from the berries), when fed to mice bearing human breast cancer cells, has previously been shown to decrease the growth and metastasis of tumors. A new study published in the June 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition suggests compounds in whole cranberries also inhibit prostate, skin, lung and brain cancer cells as well.

Androgen-dependent prostate cancer cells were inhibited the most (just 10 mg of a warm water extract of cranberry presscake inhibited their growth by 50%). With androgen-independent prostate cancer cells and estrogen-independent breast cancer cells, a larger amount was needed but produced the same beneficial effect (250 mg of cranberry presscake extract inhibited their growth by 50%). Researchers concluded that the active compounds in whole cranberry prevent cancer by blocking cell cycle progression and inducing cells to undergo apoptosis (programmed cell death). (October 19, 2004)

Aiding in Recovery from Stroke

In laboratory studies using rat brain cells exposed to simulated stroke conditions, a concentrated cranberry extract reduced the death of brain cells by half in comparison to cells that did not receive the extract, scientists reported in 2003 at the 226th meeting of the American Chemical Society. The researchers, led by Professor Catherine Neto from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, believe their findings suggest that cranberry juice could aid the recovery of stroke patients, particularly in the earliest stages, when the most severe damage occurs. The researchers think that although cranberry juice may not prevent a stroke from occurring initially, it may reduce the severity of the stroke and thus the resulting symptoms. Neto was quoted as saying that “although both animal and human studies are needed to confirm these initial findings, this study offers a compelling reason for recent stroke victims and those at risk for stroke to consume cranberries.” Until those studies are done, however, it is unclear what amount of cranberries or cranberry juice people should eat or drink to have an optimal effect against stroke.

Protection against Macular Degeneration

Your mother may have told you carrots would keep your eyes bright as a child, but as an adult, it looks like fruit is even more important for keeping your sight. Data reported in a study published in the June 2004 issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology indicates that eating 3 or more servings of fruit per day may lower your risk of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), the primary cause of vision loss in older adults, by 36%, compared to persons who consume less than 1.5 servings of fruit daily.

In this study, which involved 77,562 women and 40,866 men, researchers evaluated the effect of study participants' consumption of fruits; vegetables; the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E; and carotenoids on the development of early ARMD or neovascular ARM, a more severe form of the illness associated with vision loss. Food intake information was collected periodically for up to 18 years for women and 12 years for men. While, surprisingly, intakes of vegetables, antioxidant vitamins and carotenoids were not strongly related to incidence of either form of ARM, fruit intake was definitely protective against the severe form of this vision-destroying disease. Three servings of fruit may sound like a lot to eat each day, but by simply tossing a banana into your morning smoothie or slicing it over your cereal, topping off a cup of yogurt or green salad with a half cup of cranberries,and snacking on an apple, plum, nectarine or pear, you've reached this goal. (July 10, 2004)

Description

A glossy, scarlet red, very tart berry, the cranberry belongs to the same genus as the blueberry, Vaccinium. 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.

Cranberries have also been called “bounceberries,” because ripe ones bounce, and “craneberries,” a poetic allusion to the fact that their pale pink blossoms look a bit like the heads of the cranes that frequent cranberry bogs. The variety cultivated commercially in the northern United States and southern Canada, the American Cranberry, produces a larger berry than either the Southern cranberry, a wild species that is native to the mountains of the eastern United States, or the European variety.

History

American Indians enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup—a cranberry sauce recipe that was likely a treat at early New England Thanksgiving feasts since by the beginning of the 18th century, the tart red berries were already being exported to England by the colonists. Cranberries were also used by the Indians decoratively, as a source of red dye, and medicinally, as a poultice for wounds since not only do their astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding, but we now also know that compounds in cranberries have antibiotic effects.

Although several species of cranberries grow wild in Europe and Asia, the cranberry most cultivated is an American native, which owes its commercial success to one Henry Hall, an observant gentleman in Dennis, Massachusetts. In 1840, Mr. Hall noticed an abundance of large berries grew when sand was swept into his bog by the prevailing winds and tides. The sandy bog provided just the right growing conditions for the cranberries by stifling the growth of shallow-rooted weeds, thus enhancing that of the deep rooted cranberries.

Cranberry cultivation soon spread not only across the U.S. through Wisconsin to Washington and Oregon, but also across the sea to Scandinavia and Great Britain. The hardy berries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck. When an American ship loaded with crates filled with cranberries sank along the Dutch coast, many crates washed ashore on the small island of Terschelling; some of the berries took root, and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.

Despite their adventures abroad, cranberries are still primarily grown in the United States, where 154 thousand metric tons are produced annually. Half the annual crop still comes from Massachusetts and is harvested between Labor Day and Halloween.

How to Select and Store

A fruit with a short season, fresh cranberries are harvested between Labor Day and Halloween and appear in markets from October through December.

Choose fresh, plump cranberries, deep red in color, and quite firm to the touch.

Firmness is a primary indicator of quality. In fact, during harvesting, high quality cranberries are often sorted from lesser quality fruits by bouncing the berries against barriers made of slanted boards. The best berries bounce over the barriers, while the inferior ones collect in the reject pile.

The deeper red their color, the more highly concentrated are cranberries’ beneficial anthocyanin compounds.

Fresh, then dried cranberries retain the most antioxidants; bottled cranberry drinks and cranberry cocktails with added sugars or low calorie sweeteners contain the least.

Although typically packed in 12-ounce plastic bags, fresh cranberries, especially if organic, may be available in pint containers.

Fresh cranberries can be stored in the refrigerator for several months. Before storing, discard any soft, discolored, pitted or shriveled fruits. When removed from the refrigerator, cranberries may look damp, but such moistness does not indicate spoilage, unless the berries are discolored or feel sticky, leathery or tough.

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. Don’t forget to date the bag before returning to the freezer.

Once thawed, frozen berries will be quite soft and should be used immediately.

Dried cranberries are sold in many groceries and may be found with other dried fruits.

How to Enjoy

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

Tips for preparing cranberries:

While not as fragile as blueberries, fresh cranberries should be treated with care. Just prior to use, place cranberries in a strainer and briefly and gently rinse under cool running water. When using frozen berries in recipes that do not require cooking, thaw well and drain prior to using. For cooked recipes, use unthawed berries since this will ensure maximum flavor. Extend the cooking time a few minutes to accommodate for the frozen berries.

A few quick serving ideas:

Take advantage of cranberries’ tartness by using them to replace vinegar or lemon when dressing your green salads. Toss the greens with a little olive oil then add a color and zest with a handful of raw cranberries.

To balance their extreme tartness, combine fresh cranberries with other fruits such as oranges, apples or pineapple or pears. If desired, add a little fruit juice, honey or maple syrup to chopped fresh cranberries.

For a easy-to-make salad that will immediately become a holiday favorite, place 2 cups fresh berries in your blender along with ½ cup of pineapple chunks, a quartered skinned orange, a sweet apple (such as one of the Delicious variety) and a handful or two of walnuts or pecans. Blend till well mixed but still chunky. Transfer to a large bowl. Dice 3-4 stalks of celery, add to the cranberry mixture and stir till just combined.

Combine unsweetened cranberry in equal parts with your favorite fruit juice and sparkling mineral water for a lightly sweetened, refreshing spritzer. For even more color appeal, garnish with a slice of lime.

Add a color and variety to your favorite recipes for rice pudding, quick breads or muffins by using dried cranberries instead of raisins.

Sprinkle a handful of dried cranberries over a bowl of hot oatmeal, barley, or any cold cereal.

Mix dried cranberries with lightly roasted and salted nuts for a delicious snack.

Safety

Oxalates

Cranberries are among a small number of foods that contain measurable amounts of oxalates, naturally-occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating cranberries.

Oxalates may also interfere with absorption of calcium from the body. For this reason, individuals trying to increase their calcium stores may want to avoid cranberries, or if taking calcium supplements, may want to eat cranberries 2-3 hours before or after taking their supplements.

Warfarin

Since 1999, the United Kingdom’s Committee on the Safety of Medicines has had 5 reports of cases (one fatal) which indicate that cranberry juice (from Vaccinium macrocarpon) potentiates the effect of warfarin. Some patients exhibited a marked increase in their INR (international normalised ratios) values after they began to drink cranberry juice. INRs provide a measure of blood clotting capacity, and high values are associated with serious bleeding. In the one fatal case, six weeks after a man started drinking cranberry juice, his INR increased sharply, and he subsequently died from gastrointestinal and pericardial haemorrhages. The Committee on the Safety of Medicines has hypothesized that flavonoid antioxidants in cranberry juice inhibit the activity of one of the cytochrome P450 enzymes in the liver that is primarily responsible for detoxifying warfarin, the isoform called CYP2C9. Until this possible interaction between warfarin and cranberry juice has been investigated further, the individuals taking warfarin are advised to avoid cranberry juice.

At least 12 reports of suspected interactions involving warfarin and cranberry juice have now been made to the Committee on the Safety of Medicines in Great Britain. In the October 2004 issue of Current Problems in Pharmacovigilance, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued a recommendation that patients using warfarin should be advised to avoid cranberry juice. (December 17, 2004)

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.

 

Cranberries, raw, whole
0.50 cup
23.27 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
vitamin C 6.41 mg 10.7 8.3 excellent
dietary fiber 1.99 g 8.0 6.2 very good
manganese 0.07 mg 3.5 2.7 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

References

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This page was updated on: 2004-12-17 20:06:04
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation