As one of three fruits native to North America, cranberries have been around for centuries, but have only gained traction for their health benefits in the past few decades.1 These small red berries are packed with vitamins C and E, fiber, and manganese, as well as a host of phytochemicals—compounds naturally found in plants with health protective properties (e.g., antioxidants).1-8 Of greatest significance for cranberries is the flavonoid group, including anthocynanidins (responsible for the rich, red color of cranberries), flavonols, and proanthocyanidins (PACs), and phenolic acids—mainly benzoic, hydroxycinnamic, and urosilic acids. 1,3-8
Cranberries & Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Cranberries are most often associated with urinary tract health and the prevention of UTIs.1,3,5,8 The unique structure of PACs found in cranberries gives them an anti-adhesive property, making it more difficult for bacteria to attach to the body and cause infection.1,3,5 Researchers believe this is at the root of cranberries’ ability to help ward off UTIs, especially in women with recurrent UTIs (research hasn’t indicated that cranberries can treat or cure existing UTIs).1,3,5 In the same way that PACs help prevent E. coli from attaching to urinary tract walls and causing a UTI, researchers think a similar mechanism helps protect against S. mutans leading to tooth decay and cavities, as well as H. pylori from triggering peptic ulcers, and thus possibly gastric cancer. 1,3,5,8
Free radicals are unstable ions that occur naturally as a metabolic byproduct and as a result of an external factor—exposure to environmental toxins (e.g., tobacco, pollution) with high levels of free radicals or toxins that stimulate the body’s production of more free radicals.1,9 The danger of free radicals lies in their ability to damage the integrity of DNA, lipids, and proteins at high concentrations, leading to an increased risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease (CVD), some cancers, diabetes, and age-related diseases.1,3,5,8,9
Like free radicals, antioxidants are made by the body and found externally—primarily in fruits, vegetables, and grains.9 They “neutralize” free radicals, thereby preventing or slowing down their chain reaction of oxidative damage.1,9 As such, research has shown that dietary antioxidants are linked to a reduced risk of some chronic diseases and cancers.1,4,9
Studies analyzing antioxidant quantity and quality of fruits and vegetables have repeatedly put cranberries toward the top of the list, with some measurements determining cranberries have the highest total antioxidant activity and the highest total phenolic content among common fruits and vegetables.6,7 With a strong arsenal of antioxidants, it’s no surprise that mounting research suggests cranberries have beneficial effects on blood pressure, hypertension, lipoprotein profiles, glucose metabolism, oxidative stress, and inflammation, among other health markers.1,3,4,5,8
The anti-adhesive and antioxidant properties derived from cranberries’ phytochemicals are believed to be the source of the fruit’s chemoprotective effects.1,3,8 Although most of the research to-date has been in-vitro or with animals, there is significant evidence supporting cranberries’ capacity to protect against some common cancers, particularly colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.1,3,8 Additionally, there is some suggestive evidence that cranberries’ anthocyanins, PACs, and ursolic acid may slow cancer growth and incite self-destruction of cancer cells of the mouth, breast, colon, prostate, lung, and other cancers.4
While dietary antioxidants have been linked with a decreased risk of many chronic diseases and cancers, the same has not held true with antioxidant supplements.9 Thus, it’s recommended that whole foods are consumed to increase antioxidant intake and reap its health benefits.
So skip the cranberry extract pills and go straight to the source by incorporating this tart and satisfying fruit into your diet all year long. For a spin on a classic, try this recipe (our founder and intern both had success with it over Thanksgiving!) for an antioxidant-rich side dish with cancer-fighting potential.
Cranberry Sauce with Pears and Cardamom
Bon Appetite, 1998
- 1 cup frozen cranberry juice concentrate, thawed
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 cups chopped and peeled firm but ripe Bartlett pears (~1/3-inch pieces)
- 1 12-oz package of whole cranberries
- 1 ½ tsp ground cardamom
- ½ tsp Chinese five-spice powder *(or make your own)
- Combine cranberry juice concentrate and sugar in heavy medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and bring to boil.
- Mix in remaining ingredients. Simmer until pears are tender and cranberries burst, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.
- Remove from heat, cool completely and chill thoroughly. Makes about 4 cups. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated).
Caryn Huneke is completing her dietetic internship and MS degree in Nutrition Education at Teachers College, Columbia University to become a Registered Dietitian.
- Cote, J., Caillet, S., Doyon, G., Sylvain, J.F., Lacroix, M. (2010). Bioactive Compounds in Cranberries and Their Biological Properties. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition; 50(7):666-679.
- Nutrition Facts and Analysis for Cranberries, Raw. NutritionData. Accessed on November 25, 2013. http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1875/2
- Cranberry and Human Health Research Review. Cranberry Institute. Accessed on November 25, 2013. http://www.cranberryinstitute.org/health_research/Cranberry%20HumanHealthResearchReview.pdf
- AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer: Cranberries. American Institute for Cancer Research. Accessed on November 25, 2013. http://www.aicr.org/foods-that-fight-cancer/cranberries.html#intro
- Blumberg, J.B., Camesano, T.A., Cassidy, A., et al. (2013). Cranberries and Their Bioactive Constituents in Human Health. Advances in Nutrition; 4:618-632.
- Sun J., Chu YF, Wu X, Liu RH. (2002). Antioxidant and Antiproliferative Activities of Common Fruits. J. Agric. Food Chem.; 50(25):7449-7454.
- Vinson J.A, Su X, Zubik L, Bose P. Phenol antioxidant quantity and quality in foods: Fruits. J Agric Food Chem. 2001;49:5315–21.
- Neto, C.C. Cranberries: ripe for more cancer research? (2011). Journal of the Science and Food Agriculture, 91(13):2303-2307.
- Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention. National Cancer Institute. Accessed November 26, 2013. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/antioxidants