Cranberries 101: A Deep Dive Into This Superfruit

  • Mfon EkanemBSc (Hons) Human Biology & Infectious Diseases - University of Salford, UK

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Introduction

A healthy fruit intake is part of a balanced diet. This intake can happen in different forms such as dried or fresh, frozen and canned as well as juiced fruit.

Cranberries present numerous health benefits, leading this fruit to gain the title of superfruit. Cranberries can benefit you in numerous forms (juices, sauces, dried, powder, supplements and many more) and can show surprising health benefits.

This article aims to uncover the many pieces of information regarding this fruit, from the medical to the historical which contributed to its nomination as a superfruit.

So, let’s dive into the realm of cranberries, and learn some incredible facts and perks of this fruit.1

Historical background

Origins and early uses of cranberries

Cranberries were originally discovered in America. This fruit was utilised for centuries before America was colonised by the indigenous population, both as medicine and clothing dye. At the time, these berries were called “sasemineash” and “pakimintzen” (wild cranberry) by the native American tribes.

After the arrival of the pilgrims, they gave the name “crane berry”, tying it to the pink flower blossoming from its plant which reminded them of the head of a crane. Over the centuries, the name was shortened until it became what it is today: cranberry.

Native Americans were known to combine cranberries with dried meat to make pemmican, in energy bars needed during winter which provided a source of protein and fat, and nasampe (or grits, a coarsely ground grain).

Native Americans also thought the use of cranberries could alleviate fevers and stomach problems, as well as treat childbirth-related injuries, and be used for blood purification (laxatives). Additionally, their medicine men (called pow-wows) often conducted traditional healing rituals to fight many ailments and even seasickness.5

American whalers could eat cranberries during long sea voyages to prevent scurvy, a common condition while at sea caused by a lack of Vitamin C.2

Evolution of cranberry cultivation over time

Over the centuries cranberries were mainly obtained from the wild. However, in 1816, a Revolutionary War veteran called Henry Hall noticed how wild cranberries grew better when sand blew over them. From that moment, he decided to cultivate cranberry vines and scatter sand over them to enhance their growth. This led to the first known cranberry cultivation method, which was adopted by many others to grow these vines.

Harvesting and production

There are different types of cranberry:

  • the American cranberry ( or Vaccinium macrocarpon)
  • the European cranberry (or Vaccinium oxycoccos)

These two can vary in size, with the European cranberry being smaller. The American cranberry can survive in cool, temperate temperatures and is cultivated mostly in the wetlands of the northeastern US and southern Canada. European cranberries are cultivated in Latvia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, Southern England and the Netherlands. The USA and Canada are the largest producers of this fruit, generating more than 90% of the world’s production.2

Nutritional value

Overview of cranberry nutrition

Cranberries have numerous beneficial constituents, which include:3

  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Fibre content

Cranberries are antioxidant-rich fruits

Cranberries have a high content of antioxidants, contributing to the disease-fighting properties of these fruits. Antioxidants in cranberries have shown numerous benefits in chronic illnesses.4

Studies also showed cranberries can increase the antioxidant capacity of plasma.2,3

These antioxidants in cranberries are contained in a rich source of vitamins (Vitamin C, A, E and K).

The antioxidant properties also exhibited antibacterial, antiviral, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory activities thanks to Flavinoid content (strong antioxidants important in plant defence). Other antioxidants contained in cranberries include:

  • Polyphenols (flavonoids, phenolic acids, anthocyanins, tannins)
  • Triterpene compounds
  • Other phytochemicals such as organic acids

Antioxidant activity is vital in preventing the development of numerous chronic or degenerative conditions like cardiovascular disease, ageing, diabetes, cancer, inflammation and more.

Cranberries contain key vitamins and minerals

Cranberries are high in vitamins and minerals, including:

  • Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid. Cranberries contain 15.3% to 30% ascorbic acid for the smaller version (European), whereas for the American cranberry, this vitamin comprises about 47.5%. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and can help strengthen the immune system, improve iron absorption, and promote wound healing6
  • Vitamin A or beta-carotene, is the component which confers cranberries to their characteristic colour. When consumed, this converts into the vitamin retinol, also an antioxidant, which supports the immune system and promotes skin and brain health
  • Vitamin K helps wound healing by improving blood clotting and can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by regulating calcium levels in the blood and consequentially regulating blood pressure
  • Vitamin E or tocopherols. With antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and healing properties, this vitamin supports the immune system, supports brain function, prevents cognitive decline, improves eye health and vision, and protects skin from ultraviolet ray damage that slows skin ageing
    • Manganese (67.19 (European) and 72.51 (American) mg/100g mineral content)
    • Magnesium (8.09 (European) and 6.61 (American) mg/100g mineral content)
    • Potassium (67.19 (European) and 72.51 (American) mg/100g mineral content)
    • Phosphorus (6.12 (European) and 8.59 (American) mg/100g mineral content)
    • Calcium (12.74 (European) and 10.19 (American) mg/100g mineral content)
    • Sulphur (8.14 (European) and 7.85 (American) mg/100g mineral content)
    • Nitrogen (54.9 (European) and 42.1 (American) mg/100g mineral content)

Small quantities of iron are also found in these berries. Overall, cranberries are a good source of minerals but also a rich source of antioxidants.6

Cranberries present numerous Health Benefits

  • Cranberries have a content of 90% water, the remaining being carbohydrates and fibres
  • The American cranberry is rich in polyphenols which can have not only antioxidant properties but also antibacterial, antiviral, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties among many others1
  • Prevention of UTIs. Drinking cranberry juice can help in the prevention of urinary tract infections
  • Prevention of cavities. The same component that prevents UTIs can help prevent the formation of cavities, gum disease, and oral cancer
  • Reduce inflammation, as said above, the antioxidants present in this fruit can help reduce inflammation
  • Improve digestion, cranberries can help reduce bad microbes in your colon and help promote good bacteria
  • Improved cardiac health, cranberries can help lower blood pressure and regulate cholesterol levels
  • Possible cancer prevention, researchers are currently studying whether cranberries can have cancer-preventing properties because of the rich amount of antioxidants

Possible side-effects

Consumption of cranberries can lead to side effects:

  • Stomach ache and diarrhoea, cranberries are mostly safe products. However, when eaten in excess, they can cause these side effects, especially in children8
  • Kidney stones. People at risk of kidney stones should be extremely careful with the consumption of cranberry products as cranberries contain high levels of calcium oxalate, which kidney stones are made of
  • Influence on blood thinners medication, cranberries contain vitamin K, which can interfere with blood thinners. People who take this medication should consult a medical professional and limit the consumption of these products

Culinary uses

Traditional culinary applications of cranberries

Pemmican, dried meat crushed to powder, mixed with hot fat, and crushed or dried berries, pemmican is considered a superfood, because of its effect to last for a long period without causing health issues.

Cranberry sauce is traditionally used during Christmas and Thanksgiving to adorn roast meat. This recipe was first introduced in 1796 and is still very popular today.

Healthy ways to incorporate cranberries into meals

  • Add a few cranberries into a smoothie by balancing it with a sweeter ingredient (like honey or sweet fruit)
  • Add some chopped berries to your salad
  • Add some cranberries to your porridge
  • Add some cranberry sauce to your porridge
  • Pair your dried or fresh cranberries with some yoghurt
  • Cranberry juice, but be aware of added sugars!

Summary

Cranberries are a delicious, healthy, and versatile fruit, with numerous health perks, which can be consumed in many forms. From its discovery and uses in Native American tradition as a medicine to numerous modern-day uses, cranberries have come very far.5

Adding cranberries into your diet can prevent various conditions, from UTIs to digestion problems and help you stay healthy.

With this dive into the world of cranberries, we hope to have given you valuable information to enrich your diet with this superfruit and reap its numerous benefits!

  • Cranberries are considered superfruits because of their health benefits and can be consumed in numerous ways
  • Early use of cranberries can be tied to native American medicine and traditions
  • There are two known types of cranberry: the American and the European, which vary in size
  • The use of cranberries can help make a difference in someone’s health and prevent many conditions

References

  1. Cranberries and Their Bioactive Constituents in Human Health12». Advances in Nutrition, vol. 4, fasc. 6, novembre 2013, pp. 618–32. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.113.004473.
  2. Neto CC, Vinson JA. Cranberry. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects [Internet]. 2nd ed. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011 [cited 2024 Apr 29]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92762/.
  3. Blumberg, Jeffrey B., et al. «Cranberries and Their Bioactive Constituents in Human Health12». Advances in Nutrition, vol. 4, fasc. 6, novembre 2013, pp. 618–32. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.113.004473.
  4. Nemzer, Boris V., et al. «Cranberry: Chemical Composition, Antioxidant Activity and Impact on Human Health: Overview». Molecules, vol. 27, fasc. 5, febbraio 2022, p. 1503. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules27051503.
  5. Neto, Catherine C., e Joe A. Vinson. «Cranberry». Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, a cura di Iris F. F. Benzie e Sissi Wachtel-Galor, 2nd ed., CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2011. PubMed, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92762/.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Mfon Ekanem

Bachelor of Science in Human biology and Infectious Diseases – Bsc(Hons), University of Salford, United Kingdom

Mfon is a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Biology and Infectious Diseases, with a comprehensive understanding of genetics and physiology. With a profound passion for both medicine and writing, Mfon is dedicated to delivering engaging and accurate content tailored for both general audiences and enthusiasts of the medical field alike.

Throughout her academic journey, Mfon has gained knowledge of the human body, focusing particularly on the mechanisms of infectious diseases and their impact on human health. She has developed a keen insight into the complex interplay between pathogens and host organisms, as well as the body's defence mechanisms against diseases.

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