Not just for Thanksgiving

Cranberries

by Mollie Doyle

Cranberries

Jocelyn Filley

When I was 25, I boycotted my family’s Thanksgiving in New York and spent it with my friend Eve and her then boyfriend, Ariel, here on the Island. Because Eve, Ariel and I were all vegetarians, we had Thanksgiving side dishes as our meal—sautéed Brussels sprouts in olive oil with onions and black pepper, potatoes and parsnips mashed together with butter and cream. Of course, we made cranberry sauce. The sauce was delicious, and the flavor of that meal (including the rebellion) remains one of my life’s gustatory highlights. Each bite had the right notes of warmth and tang. Since then, cranberries have held a special place in my life. Cranberries call up friendship, celebration, connection. But these days, this small fruit is also credited with tremendous healing potential for our bodies.
When I spoke to Amy Howell, Ph.D., an associate research scientist at the Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research at Rutgers University, she made a very convincing case for our incorporating more cranberries into our diets. According to Dr. Howell, cranberries have a special type of proanthocyanidins which “prevent bacterial adhesion.” These stick like a “lock and key” to harmful bacteria and prevent them from latching on to our gums, urinary or digestive tracts, “essentially disabling them.” This is why cranberry is an effective preventative for a urinary tract infection (UTI).
“The amazing thing about the cranberry (versus an antibiotic) is that you cannot develop a resistance to it. There are countries around the world where people are dying from UTIs because they have developed such a strong resistance to antibiotics.” She added that cranberries should be the first line of defense for preventing UTIs, not the use of low-dose antibiotics which encourage the developmentof bacterial resistance.
Dr. Howell has also found that consuming cranberries is a great preventative measure against H. pylori, a bacteria commonly associated with peptic ulcers. (According to the Mayo Clinic, peptic ulcers are a leading cause of stomach cancers). Additionally, Dr. Howell pointed me to a study done in Canada where “abdominally obese men” drank just 250 milliliters (one glass) of a low-sugar cranberry cocktail a day. On average, the men increased their HDL (good cholesterol) by 7.8 percent and lowered their harmful, oxidizing LDL cholesterol. As Dr. Howell said, “Cranberries have unique cardiovascular benefits. Very few substances do that. It’s very cool.”
As Dr. Howell walked me through this compelling research, I began to worry. “Do I have to drink gallons of that super sour 100 percent cranberry juice to reap the benefits?” She answered, “No.” Dr. Howell and her lab have tested not just raw cranberries, but also many versions of the processed fruit—from Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice to dried sweetened cranberries. And the incredible thing is, “processing does not seem to break down or stop the proanthocyanidins from doing their work. If you are drinking a juice, just make sure that 27 percent of it is 100 percent real cranberry juice.” I checked around, and the labeling of some of the cranberry juice on the market is vague. So if you don’t like it so tart, buy some of the 100 percent cranberry juice and mix it with two-thirds of something else, such as apple juice, to take the edge off. Also dried cranberries make a terrific snack on their own and are great in breads, granola, salads, etc. All you need is one 40-gram serving per day of the dried fruit or an 8-ounce glass of the 27 percent juice to get the health benefits.
Although the research on cranberries is new, they have been a part of the local diet since 1550. The Algonquian people called them sassamanash and introduced them to the European settlers, which helped them stave off starvation and scurvy. Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall is credited for planting the first commercial cranberry crop in Dennis, Mass., in 1816.
Today, the cranberry has the great distinction of being one of only three native North American fruits that is commercially grown. (The other two are the blueberry and Concord grapes.)
According to Scott Soares, the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the current Executive Director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee, Massachusetts will produce 330 million pounds of cranberries this year. Only Wisconsin, the leading producer of cranberries in the US, will grow more—around 500 million pounds.
With their exceptional healing potential and our deep history with them, cranberries feel as if they might just be part of our DNA—our family. So don’t just relegate them to your holiday feasts like a second or third cousin. Invite the cranberry to your table more often, like a beloved sister or dearest friend.