Did you know that cranberries contain one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any fruit? They are among the fruits and vegetables richest in health-promoting antioxidants, which protect our cells from free-radical damage. Cranberries are often on my shopping list for many reasons, including their ability to reduce bodywide inflammation, boost immunity and more.
The disease-fighting antioxidants found in cranberries outrank many other fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, spinach, broccoli and red grapes. This amazing fruit, which is sold fresh, frozen and dried, is commonly used in products like juices, sauces, jellies, baked goods and teas.
Researchers believe that cranberries contain substances that prevent infection-causing bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract walls, an they are also an excellent source of many important vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin C, manganese and fiber. As you’re about to see, the health benefits of cranberries are incredible.
Top Benefits of Cranberries
The top six cranberry benefits are that the cranberry:
- Prevents and Treats Urinary Tract Infections
- Decreases Inflammation
- May Help Prevent Cancers
- Improves Immune Function
- Benefits the Digestive Tract
- Reduces Risk of Heart Disease
1. Prevents and Treats Urinary Tract Infections
Cranberries are perhaps most widely known for helping to prevent or treat urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are about 50 times more common in women than men due to the location of a women’s urethra. They can affect any part of the urinary tract but occur most often in the bladder (cystitis).
Each year it’s estimated that there are over 15 million urinary tract infections in the U.S. alone. The infection produces symptoms of frequent, urgent or painful urination, and sometimes abdominal pain or blood in the urine. Most UTIs are caused by a harmful bacteria called Escherichia coli (or E. coli). Cranberry benefits are due to compounds that seem to help keep certain bacteria (like E. coli) from attaching to the urinary tract wall.
The traditional preventative recommendation to help prevent UTIs from forming is to drink one to two glasses of 100 percent pure, unsweetened or lightly sweetened cranberry juice a day. Studies offer evidence that women who drink cranberry juice frequently may suffer fewer symptomatic urinary tract infections.
Antibiotics are very effective in preventing and treating these infections, but side effects of antibiotics — including antibiotic resistance, yeast infections, digestive problems and more — often deter many women from taking them.
In the U.S., antibiotics for urinary tract infections are thought to make up 15 percent of all antibiotics prescribed each year. There is mounting evidence that consuming too many doses of antibiotics can lead to many health problems, but luckily a natural remedy like the use of cranberries has become a popular and effective alternative.
Some researchers believe that certain antioxidants in cranberries change the bacteria so they can’t stick to the urinary tract; others think that cranberries create a slippery coating on the urinary tract walls that prevents E. coli from sticking. One study looked at women who had a history of urinary tract infections caused by E. coli bacteria.
Women who drank 1.7 ounces of cranberry-lingonberry juice concentrate every day for six months lowered their risk of getting a UTI by 20 percent compared to women who didn’t use any intervention. In another study, older adults who ate cranberry products were about half as likely to have bacteria and white blood cells in their urine, a sign of urinary tract infections. (1)
A third study involved 20 women with recurrent UTIs who consumed one serving of sweetened and dried cranberries daily for two weeks. Over half of the patients did not experience a UTI within six months of consuming sweetened, dried cranberries, and the mean UTI rate per six months decreased significantly. The results of this study indicate a beneficial effect from consuming cranberries to reduce the number of UTIs in susceptible women. (2)
When reviewers compared cranberry juice, capsules or tablets with a placebo or water for the prevention of UTIs in a variety of populations, results showed that over a 12-month period, cranberry products reduced the overall incidence of UTIs by 35 percent, and among women with recurring UTIs, cranberries cut the annual rate of new infections by 39 percent. (3)
2. Decreases Inflammation
Inflammation is at the root of many common diseases seen in developed nations, including heart disease, autoimmune disease, cancer, diabetes and more. Anti-inflammatory foods like cranberries help naturally combat inflammation due to their antioxidants.
Antioxidants are found in foods that are naturally deeply colored, such as the dark red color of cranberries or the rich blue/purple color of blueberries. All berries help fight free radicals due to being high in antioxidants, but cranberries prove to be one of the best sources on earth.
Inflammation occurs when the body’s immune system works on overdrive, trying hard to rid the body of toxins that come from an unhealthy diet, pollution and more. A diet low in antioxidant, anti-inflammatory foods results in an abundance of free radicals within the body. Free radicals, which might sound like a foreign and confusing concept, are essentially a natural byproduct that our body creates from doing everyday activities.
Everyone produced free radicals, but when left uncontrolled, they proliferate and can cause damage to DNA, cellular membranes and enzymes. Frequently eating a range of whole food, anti-inflammatory foods is correlated with less cancer risk, better brain function, healthier cholesterol and triglyceride levels, plus it reduces the incidence of diabetes and autoimmune diseases like arthritis.
3. May Help Prevent Certain Cancers
Research has shown that cancer-preventive substances found in cranberries are helpful in preventing breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers.
This is due to the fruit being able to help slow tumor progression in both human and animal studies. (4, 5) With their unique array of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, cranberries seem ideally positioned to help lower the risk of some of the common types of cancers.
Antioxidants are essential to optimizing health by combating the free radicals that can damage cellular structures as well as DNA. Growing evidence from various studies suggests that the high content of antioxidant flavonoids found in cranberries and blueberries has the ability to help stop age-related diseases from developing thanks to their capability of limiting oxidative stress. That is why they are some of the top cancer-fighting foods around.
This is crucial because sadly many people experience high levels of oxidative stress from ongoing bodywide inflammation caused by a poor diet, mental stress and unhealthy environments.
4. Improves Immune Function
According to some studies, cranberry extract can improve multiple aspects of immune function, and it can lower the frequency of cold and flu symptoms. The high levels of a specific substance called proanthocyanidins that are found in cranberries helps the body’s immune function ward off illness and disease.
Proanthocyanidins refers to a larger class of polyphenols, which are commonly present in berries and other whole fruits and juices. These powerful polyphenols are able to nurture the lining of the gut, where a large majority of the immune system is actually located.
Because cranberry can ward off harmful bacteria — found in toxic food and viruses that enter the body — from accumulating and growing in the gut lining, healthy immune-boosting bacteria are able to thrive and create a powerful defense against sickness.
Also unique is the particular combination of three antioxidant nutrients found in cranberries: resveratrol, piceatannol and pterostilbene. Some research found that there is a unique synergy between these disease-fighting nutrients. The phytonutrients in cranberry provide maximal antioxidant benefits only when consumed in combination with each other and also only when consumed alongside conventional antioxidant nutrients that are also present in cranberries, like manganese and vitamin C.
When processing disrupts this antioxidant combination, the benefits are decreased; therefore, cranberries are the most beneficial when they are in their whole and natural form or in a very high-quality extract. This is because it is the unique and naturally occurring blend of cranberry antioxidants that provides us with the most health benefits.
5. Benefits the Digestive Tract
Cranberries are believed to have cleansing, anti-diarrheal, anti-septic and diuretic detoxifying properties. They help the body eliminate toxins and buildup, plus they aid in relieving water retention and bloating. Our digestive system goes beyond just our intestines and stomach — it is actually made up of our entire mouth, gums and colon too.
Recent research has shown that cranberry benefits help optimize the balance of bacteria in our entire digestive tract, acting similarly to how probiotics found in kombucha, kefir or yogurt would to create an environment of healthy “gut flora.”
Digestive health benefits from cranberries are undeniable because of the fruit’s ability to balance bacteria in the body, decreasing harmful “bad” bacteria and facilitating in the growth of “good” beneficial bacteria. This not only relieves symptoms like constipation, diarrhea and stomach acid, but also helps boost immunity and nutrient absorption, since a healthy gut wall is important for both of these functions.
6. Reduces Risk of Heart Disease
The cardiovascular benefits of cranberries come from the combined impact of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Studies involving participants who consume a normal dietary intake of cranberries, which is about one cup a day, show that the fruit can prevent the triggering of two enzymes that are pivotal in the development of heart disease. Cranberry has also been shown to prevent activation of these enzymes by blocking activity of a pro-inflammatory molecule called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha).
The antioxidant benefits of the cranberry have been associated with decreased risk of various markers of heart disease, including high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels. Cranberries are an all-natural way to help to reduce risk of heart attack or stroke because they dilate blood vessels, reduce inflammation and increase your blood flow.
In animal studies, when low-calorie cranberry juice and cranberry extracts were consumed by rats and mice, the antioxidant benefits were clearly associated with decreased risk of high blood pressure. The cranberry extracts helped prevent over-constriction of the blood vessels, which can lead to cardiac arrest or other forms of heart disease. (6) Compared to many blood pressure or heart medications, which can cause complications in some people, cranberries are virtually free of any risky side effects at all.
Many studies have shown that patients taking cranberry extract or eating whole, fresh cranberries experience a positive dilation of blood vessels and increased blood flow, and the positive effects have been seen in both systolic and diastolic blood pressures. They are also an excellent source of blood-pressure-lowering vitamin C, containing 18 percent of your daily value in just one cup. According to recent studies, consuming cranberries can lower both your systolic and diastolic blood pressure by three points, which contributes to a healthier cardiovascular system and decreased risk for heart disease and stroke. (7, 8)
Many recent studies have shown that whole cranberries consumed in dietary form, when compared to purified cranberry extracts that are in a liquid or dried form, are better at protecting the cardiovascular system and liver. This is just another reason to buy fresh cranberries and use them in a variety of recipes that you make yourself.
Relatively speaking, cranberries include an astounding collection of phytonutrients, all for a low amount of calories and sugar, plus almost no fat or sodium. Many of these phytonutrients offer antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer health benefits.
- An extremely high score of “antioxidant capacity,” even beating out other “superfoods” like blueberries and strawberries in terms of the number of specific antioxidants like proanthocyanidin
- Only 46 calories per cup of fresh berries
- Balanced levels of electrolytes, including potassium and sodium
- Low score on the glycemic index
A one-cup serving of raw cranberries (about 110 grams) contains about: (9)
- 50.6 calories
- 13.4 grams carbohydrates
- 0.4 gram protein
- 0.1 gram fat
- 5.1 grams fiber
- 14.6 milligrams vitamin C (24 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligram manganese (20 percent DV)
- 1.3 milligrams vitamin E (7 percent DV)
- 5.6 micrograms vitamin K (7 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram vitamin B6 (3 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram pantothenic acid (3 percent DV)
- 93.5 milligrams potassium (3 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (3 percent DV)
Along with an impressive amount of vitamins and minerals, cranberries also a boast high levels of phytonutrients. Some of the most powerful phytonutrients and antioxidants in cranberries include:
- Anthocyanins — This class of antioxidants found in cranberries has the ability to destroy free radicals in the body and in medical studies has shown benefits at promoting weight loss, lowering cholesterol and fighting breast cancer.
- Quercetin — Possibly the most powerful phytonutrient in this fruit, quercetin is anti-inflammatory and has been proven effective in reducing allergies, improving joint pain and reducing inflammation of the arterial walls.
- Benzoic Acid — Has powerful antiseptic properties and is the main compound in cranberries that reduces the risk of infection and can kill bad bacteria to naturally treat UTI, bladder infections and even acne.
- Epicatechins — Are a class of phytonutrients also found in green tea and red wine. They have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Buy and Find Cranberries
Cranberries are native to North America and are farmed today on approximately 40,000 acres across the northern United States and Canada. They are commonly used in American, European and Middle Eastern cuisines and can be found across the world in dried form.
The cranberry is a major commercial crop in certain American states and Canadian provinces, but the fruit definitely becomes most popular around the holiday season, used in many traditional side dishes at Thanksgiving dinners in the United States. Fall is usually the best time to get fresh cranberries, as they are harvested normally in September and October. This is the reason cranberries are used in many Thanksgiving and holiday season recipes, as they tend to be most available and fresh through the late fall and early winter.
When choosing the best cranberries, look for fresh, plump ones that are a deep red color. They should be firm to the touch; the firmness is an indicator of quality.
The deep red ones have a higher concentrate of the beneficial anthocyanin compounds. Cranberries can be found in 12-ounce packages, or they can be bought fresh and stored in a container.
Dried cranberries are easy to find in any grocery store; look in the dried fruit or nuts section. Cranberries can be kept in the refrigerator for about 20 days, and they can be kept frozen for several years.
You can refrigerate them for up to two months, or you can freeze them for later use. Looking for frozen cranberries in grocery stores is a great idea, because frequently you will be able to find them at less expensive prices and even in organic varieties.
Cranberries can be eaten raw, fully cooked or in dried form. The health benefits of cranberries seem to be present most in raw form, but any way of eating whole cranberries will usually still provide great benefits, assuming they are not overly processed and mixed with loads of sugar, which they tend to be when used in commercially sold goods.
Frequently, cranberries are sadly processed into products, such as juices, canned sauces, sugary jams and sweetened dried cranberries, which kills many of their nutrients and also contributes a lot of refined sugar to someone’s diet. It’s a much healthier idea to cook your own cranberries from scratch if you can, so you are able to ensure you are getting the most nutrients possible and to avoid an excess of sugar.
How to Cook with Fresh Cranberries
Enjoy cranberries by making a homemade trail mix. Just add dried cranberries to a mixture of other health-promoting nuts and seeds. For a kick of antioxidants and nutrients, you can also add dried cranberries to salads, grain-free or sprouted grain cereals, smoothies, and oatmeal.
Cook with fresh cranberries to make sauces, baked goods like cranberry and dark chocolate muffins, or add them to pies and cobblers. Although cooked cranberries have many health benefits, they retain their maximum amount of nutrients and taste when they are fresh. It’s believed that their delicate nutrients, including the vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes, are unable to withstand the temperature used in baking, which is typically around 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Delicious Cranberry Recipes
Cranberries can be used in endless ways, so don’t shy away from picking up a bag of fresh cranberries and using them in some familiar cranberry recipes any time of day. Here are a few of my favorite cranberry recipes:
Cranberry’s Unique History
Cranberries are most closely related to blueberries, and the two contain a lot of the same health benefits, antioxidant properties and uses.
The word cranberry derives from “craneberry” because the early European settlers in American felt that the expanding flower, stem, calyx and petals resembled the neck, head and bill of a crane bird. In 17th century New England, cranberries were sometimes called “bearberries” because bears were often seen eating them.
In North America, Native Americans were the first to use cranberries as food. The Algonquian people may have introduced them to the Massachusetts settlers who then incorporated the fruit into their Thanksgiving feasts.
It’s believed that even in Native American times, cranberries were commonly eaten for their digestive support and ability to keep people from developing infections and becoming sick.
Since the early 21st century, raw cranberries have been marketed as a “superfruit” because of their hefty nutrient content and antioxidant qualities. Henry Hall, an American Revolutionary War veteran, is known to be the first to farm cranberries in the Cape Cod town of Dennis, Mass., around 1816.
Today, regions in Cape Cod are still very well-known for producing a large amount of fresh cranberries, which are later sold all around the world. Typically, cranberries grow on low, creeping shrubs or vines up to seven or eight feet high. Cranberry vines have slender, wiry stems that are not thickly woody and have small evergreen leaves.
Cranberry Side Effects
If you take the blood-thinning drug Warfarin (also known as coumadin), you may want to avoid eating or drinking cranberries because some evidence shows that cranberries can enhance the drug’s effect on the body. Several cases involved patients who experienced an increase of bleeding due to suspected cranberry intake while taking Warfarin.
Cranberry products may promote the formation of kidney stones because of the increase of urine oxalate excretion. Cranberries are among a small number of foods that contain measurable amounts of oxalates, which are naturally occurring substances found in plants, animals and human beings.
Although the amount of oxalates found in cranberries is relatively low, they are able to increase the amount of both oxalates and calcium in the urine, resulting in urine with increased concentrations of calcium oxalate.
Final Thoughts on Cranberries
- Cranberries have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any fruit. They are also an excellent source of many important vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin C, manganese and fiber.
- They’ve been shown to reduce bodywide inflammation, boost immunity, prevent and treat UTIs, benefit the digestive tract, lower risk of heart disease, and potentially even help prevent certain forms of cancer.
- Some of the most powerful antioxidants in the cranberry include anthocyanins, quercetin, benzoic acid and epicatechins.
- Although cooked cranberries have many health benefits, they retain their maximum amount of nutrients and taste when they are fresh. It’s believed that their delicate nutrients, including the vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes, are unable to withstand the temperature used in baking, which is typically around 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
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