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?