Cranberries get a ton of press around the holidays, but for the rest of the year, we don’t hear much about them. That is a shame, really, because cranberries are one of the top antioxidant-rich foods, packing in more antioxidants ounce-for-ounce than other “superfoods” like spinach, blueberries, or even green tea.
Part of the issue is that we don’t really know what to do with them if they aren’t canned, jellied, or dried. Fresh cranberries are super-tart, and can seem more cumbersome to add to our diets than other fruits like blueberries or blackberries.
However, in addition having more phytonutrients than these more familiar berries, cranberries are also even lower in calories and sugar, with a mere 46 calories, 12 grams of carb, and 2 grams of sugar per cup.
Here are six reasons to incorporate cranberries year-round, plus six easy ways to get more in your diet.
Inflammation. Cranberries have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect, which can potentially benefit conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, stomach and digestive disorders, and our cardiovascular system, particularly the lining of our vessel walls.
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs). Cranberries have been used for years to prevent UTIs. It appears that their high levels of antioxidants called proanthocyanidins help reduce the adhesion of certain bacteria to urinary tract walls, which in turn can help to reduce the incidence of UTIs.
Ulcers. Certain types of stomach ulcers are related to a particular type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, and it’s possible that cranberries may help prevent this bacteria from attaching to the lining of the stomach, similar to how they can help prevent bacteria from attaching to the lining of the urinary tract.
Dental health. The same phytonutrients in cranberries that help prevent UTIs may also benefit our dental health, by preventing bacteria from sticking to our teeth. An added bonus: The anti-inflammatory effects of these phytonutrients can also help to reduce inflammation in and around our gums, which helps to reduce our risk of periodontal disease.
Cardiovascular Disease. Cranberry’s benefit on cardiovascular health is likely due to a combination of factors, including cranberry’s antioxidant effects, anti-inflammatory effects, and potential improvement of HDL and LDL cholesterol. The polyphenols may help prevent the build-up of plaque on vessel walls, and the antioxidant components of cranberries are also linked to a reduction in blood pressure.
Protect against cancer. Researchers continue to identify more and more ways that they are beneficial in slowing tumor growth, and have shown positive effects against certain types of cancer, including prostate, lung, breast, and colon cancer.
Whole cranberries versus supplements? It’s important to note that taking isolated nutrients from cranberries in supplement form does not appear to have the same health benefits as the whole berry. There seems to be a synergistic effect of all of the nutrients working together, and – as is the case with many foods – eating the whole berry is better than supplementing with an isolated nutrient or extract.
The skinny on dried cranberries: Unless you’re making your own (which can be pretty time-consuming), steer clear of dried cranberries. Nearly all brands are made with added sugar or fruit juices, and the “reduced sugar” varieties are generally artificially sweetened with Splenda, and still fairly high in added sugar.
And while “Greek yogurt dried cranberries” may sound like the epitome of nutritious snacking, they’re anything but. They’re essentially sugar-laden cranberries coated with a “yogurt” coating of sugar, oil, and yogurt powder, with minimal real yogurt.
Fresh, whole cranberries are by far the most healthful option – and fortunately, you can freeze fresh cranberries to use throughout the year. Here are six ways to enjoy fresh cranberries, beyond sugary sauces and sweet treats.
Smoothies. Toss a handful of cranberries (fresh, or frozen whole, with no sugar added) into your favorite smoothie for a low-calorie boost of antioxidants. My favorite blend: Unsweetened almond milk, plain 2 percent Greek yogurt, and a blend of fresh or frozen strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries.
Low-sugar compote. This is basically whole-berry cranberry sauce made with a zero-calorie sweetener instead of sugar (my preference is a natural plant-based sweetener like Swerve or Truvia). Simply boil one cup water with the sweetener equivalent of one cup of sugar. Add 12 ounces of fresh cranberries, and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into a bowl and serve at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate. Serve this low-sugar cranberry compote with grilled chicken or fish, or add it to hot cereal, yogurt, or cottage cheese.
Popsicles. Blend fresh cranberries (or the above low-sugar compote) with plain 2 percent Greek yogurt, along with any other fresh fruit, herb, or spice of choice (lime, ginger, or mint), and freeze into popsicle molds.
Salsa. Fresh cranberries can be blended and added to any salsa recipe, adding a sweet tartness. Check out our Hatch Chili Cranberry Salsa recipe, below.
“Ice” cubes. Freeze fresh whole cranberries to use as ice cubes in cocktails or even just sparkling water or iced tea.
Roasted cranberries. They’re a delicious addition to salads or whole grains like quinoa or brown rice. And they’re a cinch to make: Simply toss two cups cranberries with two teaspoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of chopped fresh mint, and one tablespoon of raw sugar or natural sugar replacer. Roast at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes until they’re soft and slightly caramelized.
This tart-and-spicy salsa pairs well with blue corn chips, or can be served with sliced raw veggies such as zucchini or other squash for low-calorie snacking. Save any leftovers to serve slightly warmed, atop grilled chicken or fish.
Makes about 12 quarter-cup servings
2 cups fresh cranberries
2 Hatch chile peppers, roasted, seeded, minced
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 onion, minced
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup roasted, salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
Place them in processor and blend until finely chopped. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add chiles, cilantro, onions, and green onions. In a small bowl, stir together the sweetener and lime until sugar dissolves completely. Stir lime juice and pepitas into cranberry mixture and serve.
Refrigerate any leftovers in a covered, airtight container.
Per serving: 24 calories, 0.5 grams fat, 0 saturated fat, 15 mg sodium, 4 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram sugar, 0.5 grams protein.