Cranberries will soon be bursting on the scene, fresh from the fall harvest.
Cranberries have a rich history of uses for health. Cranberry poultices to heal wounds were used during American colonial days. Sailors carried cranberries on long voyages to prevent scurvy (vitamin C deficiency).
More recently, cranberries have been recognized to have the unique property of blocking adhesion of bacteria invading human tissue. This can help prevent urinary tract infections, complement treatment of stomach ulcers due to Helicobacter pylori, and improve oral hygiene by preventing adhesion of the mouth bacterium, Streptococcus mutans, to teeth.
But are cranberries healthy for your heart? Several unique properties of cranberries suggest that they do indeed contribute to various aspects of heart health:
- Rich source of pectin - Pectin is a soluble fiber, the sort that binds bile acids in the intestinal tract and naturally reduces LDL cholesterol.
- Richest source of polyphenols and flavonoids - These are the natural compounds that give cranberries their beautiful red color. Surprisingly, cranberries are richer in polyphenols and flavonoids than blueberries, strawberries, and grapes. Cranberry juice is also rich in these compounds (though cranberry juice cocktail is not, since the "cocktail" has been diluted with other liquids, including the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup). Like grapes, cranberries are a source of resveratrol, the polyphenol also found in red wines that some believe is responsible for reduced risk for heart disease and extending life.
- High antioxidant activity - Cranberries are among the highest in antioxidant capacity against superoxide radicals, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radicals, oxidizing factors believed to underlie heart disease, cancer, and aging. Cranberries reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles.
- Blocks uric acid production - Cranberries have the unique ability to block the activity of an enzyme, xanthine oxidase, that converts xanthine to uric acid. Uric acid is believed to add to heart disease risk and is the factor responsible for gout.
- Cranberries increase HDL cholesterol - Cranberry juice increases HDL by 3-4 mg/dl.
Cranberries are only modest sources of sugars, with 7.19 grams "net" carbohydrates (total carbohydrates minus fiber content) per cup of whole raw cranberries. The best way to eat cranberries is the real thing: eat the whole berry, as in the sugar-free cranberry sauce, below, or added to baked dishes like chicken. Second best are dried cranberries. However, be careful of the overly-sweetened dried cranberries that contain added sugar (for a total of 78 grams sugar per cup - too much). Unsweetened dried cranberries can be purchased, or you can dry them yourself. Cranberry juice is another way to obtain the health benefits of cranberries; the unsweetened juice, while quite tart, is the best (30.5 grams sugar per 8 oz). The more common cranberry juice "cocktails" are generally too sugary and/or too dilute for full health benefit.