As far as healthy foods go, cranberries are at the top of the list due to their high phytonutrient and antioxidant content and are often referred to as a "super food." Not to mention, half a cup of cranberries contains only 25 calories! And yet, most people take these bright red, tart berries for granted.
Cranberries have amazing and somewhat surprising health benefits that I just cannot wait to share with you, they can be a fantastic and healthy addition to your regular diet. But if you want to enjoy them, you’ll want to know that there is a dark side to cranberry farming. I always say that information is power and it is never more true that when we talk about cranberries — and how to choose the cranberries that are safe for you, your family, and for the environment.
Though you may not have heard about it, cranberries are great for your health for a wide range of reasons. They’ve been used as a healthy food source throughout the history of our nation. Native Americans used cranberries to treat illnesses, and pilgrims believed cranberry skin could fight scurvy, a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C. And today, science is confirming their power as a health food.
While they are best known for their protection against urinary tract infections or UTIs, they provide powerful antioxidant protection and anti-inflammatory benefits. They also have:
- Immune system benefits
- Cardiovascular system benefits
- Anti-cancer benefits
- Digestive tract benefits
Overall, cranberries are high in vitamin C and fiber, and they can be a yummy addition to your meals or shakes and smoothies in both fresh and frozen form. Adding them to your regular diet is a great way to take advantage of all of the antioxidants they have to offer. Antioxidants, often called anti-aging compounds, help prevent or slow oxidation in the body, they help fight against the damage that free radicals can wreak in our bodies.
You probably didn’t know this, but cranberries are one of the top antioxidant foods, with even more antioxidants than blueberries – and most of us know that blueberries are a real super food! So, eating cranberries regularly can help you look and feel great as you age.
Consuming cranberries regularly may protect against many chronic diseases. This is because the phytonutrients in cranberries lower the risks of unwanted inflammation.
The anti-inflammatory effects of cranberries have also been found to help improve your gum health and reduce the risk of periodontal disease.
If you’re a woman who wants to prevent urinary tract infections, science supports the practice of consuming cranberry products daily. According to the Cochrane Collaboration, regular consumption of cranberry products reduced the overall incidence of UTIs by 35% — or by 39% for women with recurrent UTIs. For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries and cranberry juice to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) was partly related to the strong acidity of the cranberries. Recent research has shown that it's not the acidity of the cranberries, but the unusual nature of their proanthocyanidins (PACs) that is related to prevention of UTIs. The special structure of these PACs acts as a barrier to bacteria that might otherwise latch on to the urinary tract lining. In many studies, the UTI-preventing benefits of cranberries are somewhat modest and limited to women who have recurrent UTIs. But this whole area of investigation has opened the door to an understanding of other possible cranberry benefits. For example, stomach ulcers are often related to overgrowth and over-linking of one particular type of stomach bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) to the stomach lining. In much the same way as cranberries may help prevent bacterial attachment to the lining of the urinary tract, they may also help prevent attachment of bacteria to the stomach lining. There is already some preliminary evidence that cranberry may help protect us from stomach ulcer in this way. I expect to see future studies confirming this fascinating type of health benefit.
Loaded with Health Promoting Phytonutrients
Cranberries are just packed full of phytonutrients. Many cranberries are water-harvested. Water-harvesting means that the cranberries are grown in bogs and floated in water to allow for easy harvesting. For many years, water-harvesting of cranberries has been looked upon as an industry convenience. It's simply easier to harvest berries that are floating on the surface. However, recent research has shown that the anthocyanin content of cranberries (the phytonutrients that give the berries their amazing red color) is increased in direct proportion to the amount of natural sunlight striking the berry. If berries floating on top of water get exposed to increased amounts of natural sunlight (in comparison to other growing and harvesting conditions), they are likely to develop greater concentrations of anthocyanins. These greater concentrations of anthocyanins are likely to provide us with stronger health benefits. In other words, water-harvesting may turn out to provide more than just harvest convenience. If it can expose cranberries to greater amounts of natural sunlight, it can increase phytonutrient health benefits that involve the unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of anthocyanins.
Cranberries have been found to help prevent and fight cancer when consumed on a regular basis. Specifically, cranberries have been linked to breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer prevention. Over the past 5 years, scientists have identified an increasing number of mechanisms that help explain the anti-cancer properties of cranberries. These mechanisms are now known to include: blocked expression of MMPs (matrix metalloproteinases); inhibition of ODC (ornithine decarboxylase enzymes); stimulation of QRs (quinone reductase enzymes); inhibition of CYP2C9s (Phase I detoxification enzymes); and triggering of apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumor cells. The cancer-preventive benefits of cranberries are now known to extend to cancers of the breast, colon, lung, and prostate.
But the health benefits of cranberries sure don’t stop there:
- They are a great food to consume in fall and winter to help you stay well because they’ve been shown to improve multiple aspects of immune function.
- They’ve also been found to lower the frequency of cold and flu symptoms.
- Cranberries have antibacterial and antiviral properties, which promote detoxification within the liver.
- Cranberries also help cleanse the blood, which passes through your liver daily.
To get the highest levels of beneficial nutrients from cranberries, choosing fresh cranberries is best. (Oh, how I hate that canned, jellied junk that my Mom always tries to push off as cranberry sauce!)
Cranberries are at their peak from October through December. So, if you can find them, you can purchase them fresh during this time and then freeze them and enjoy them all year as they freeze very well. Or you can purchase already frozen cranberries in most grocery stores.
If you’re wondering how to use cranberries in your diet, some healthy ideas are to throw fresh or frozen cranberries into smoothies, oatmeal, salsa, or granola.
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Yes, cranberries are a healthy food, but if you’re going to consume them, it’s important to know the full story …
There is a dark side to cranberries that you should really know about. If you were to believe the ads of the world’s leading supplier of cranberry products, Ocean Spray, you would think cranberry farming is clean, natural, and safe. But most of it isn’t.
For one, cranberries aren’t easy to grow. Cranberry farmers often use a variety of chemicals to keep their production rates high. And most farmers believe chemicals are necessary for growing cranberries. But is this true? Is using chemicals the only way to grow cranberries?
Keep reading to find out. But first also consider how chemical-based cranberry farming effects the environment. Cranberry bogs (beds layered with sand, peat, gravel, and clay) are pumped with water right before harvest, so the water mixes with the chemicals. And then, that water ends up being sent through dams, ditches, and pumps, and ends up in local bodies of water.
You might think cranberry farms are under some sort of government oversight, but due to a loophole, they aren’t. So, is it possible to avoid all the chemicals and eat organic cranberries?
Yes! You can find cranberries from some sustainable companies out there, such as Fresh Meadow Farms, Cranberry Hill Farms, and Starvation Alley.
And there’s hope that the industry could be changing. In particular, Starvation Alley plans to change the way farmers grow cranberries by encouraging cranberry farmers to grow their produce organically.
Happy Gardening and Merry Christmas!