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Cranberries More Than a Holiday Side Dish


By Benjamin Goodin

The term “superfood” automatically evokes mental images of svelte fitness models drinking chartreuse-colored smoothies, clad in their form fitting athletic wear. As it turns out, I am right to recall the infomercials that put such images in my head — there is not a dietary or FDA guideline for what constitutes a “superfood.” The lack of a law or regulation and the term’s occasional use as a marketing ploy, however, do little to invalidate a designation that is not bandied about carelessly; so-called superfoods have earned this epithet if not by law, but by reputation and science that moves quicker than bureaucracy. In our present reality of dietary hyper-awareness, many once-underappreciated foods are seeing their reputations elevated by their nutritional merit. Foods like the cranberry, the always-present-but-never-star-of-the-show of the November feast, rightly deserve a reputation for exceptional health and nutrition.

One cup of cranberries only has about 50 calories, the vast majority of that being from carbs, which are split almost equally down the middle between sugars and fiber. You don’t want to overload on these if you are watching your glucose levels, but then again, almost anyone watching their intake knows that fruit tends to be sugary by nature. That same cup of cranberries has 22 percent of your daily Vitamin C requirements, enough that early colonists to the US found them helpful for staving off scurvy. They boast about five percent of your requirement of the renal system boosting, cancer-fighting, heart-healthy Vitamin B-6.

The real reasons to start upping your intake of these ultra-tart little berries are their versatile and numerous health benefits. Outclassed only by blueberries, cranberries have the second-highest level of antioxidants of any fruit; they pack an almost unbelievable 8,983 antioxidant capacity, meaning the same tartness that makes you pucker also zaps free radicals and boosts your immune system.

Most people are aware that acidic cranberry juice is great for preventing (but not treating) urinary tract infections, and there is encouraging evidence and research that shows that the same substances that prevent urinary tract infections may also be effective in fighting the propagation of certain types of cancer; they may even inhibit tumor growth.

Cranberries, especially in their juice form, carry powerful antiseptic properties while thankfully not tasting like it. Many Native American peoples in cranberry-rich areas had incorporated the tart berry into both their diet and their medicine. A few glasses of cranberry juice can keep you sociable by blasting bad bacteria in your mouth, and they can keep you ambulatory by fighting off strains of common infections like the flu and colds. Since the juice is fairly acidic, one might think that it would be the last thing you would drink for an ulcer, but the antiseptic properties kill off nasty bacteria that infect and agitate ulcers. The acid nature of cranberry juice is, however, great for breaking up kidney stones.

Because cranberries are so famously tart, most cranberry products are heavily sweetened to make them more palatable. Look for unsweetened cranberry juice and dried cranberries if possible, their already moderate sugar content might not be obvious to the tongue, but your digestive system will know it is there.

When most folks think of cranberries, they think of the festive, can-shaped holiday jelly that goes mostly ignored in its sad corner of the

Thanksgiving banquet table. You might have a relative that makes a gussied-up version of cranberry sauce, but lets face it, it’s still mostly there when dinner ends, isn’t it? In fact, twenty percent of the annual crop of the little red berries is eaten (or left on that side of the table) during Thanksgiving alone. To say that cranberries are greatly overlooked would be something of an understatement. Maybe it’s because of the powerful flavor, maybe it is because they make a better additive than main ingredient. Whatever the case, the native bog berry doesn’t enjoy as much popularity as it probably should. 

Dried cranberries are great as an additive to oatmeal, salads, snack mixes, and granolas. Their tartness pairs well with baked treats like scones, soft loaves, turnovers, and well, tarts. As far as main and side dishes are concerned, cranberries make worthy additions to game meats, usually fowl, in the form of glazes or stuffings. Adding a handful of cranberries to naturally starchy dishes like squashes and wild rice will nicely contrast the otherwise subtle and nutty flavors. Cranberry juice or muddled berries make for fantastic mixers for adult beverages, most notably with clear spirits, such as vodka or schnapps. If you’re looking to mellow the sharpness of the berries or tease out their natural flavors, citrus in general, but especially orange zest, pairs fantastically with cranberries in drinks and baked goods.

Perhaps the worst part of this nutritious and versatile little berry is finding it in the supermarket. Cranberry juice is pretty reliably placed with other juices, but pouches of dried cranberries apparently defy definition by grocers, as I’ve found them in the baking aisle, snuck in next to the fruit cups, filed near the oatmeal, and hanging on those organic and healthy endcaps that lurk near the produce aisle, but never consistently in the same place. If you can find them, I am sure you will be pleased to add them to a few dishes. Even if you don’t eat them by the handful and only occasionally add them to a dish, you’ll be pleased to know that the dried variety can last up to two years and still taste as good as the day they were packaged.