The majority of us only ever get to sample organic cranberries around Christmas time, when they are as much a part of the festive celebrations as Christmas pudding and mulled wine. No one really knows why cranberries became so intrinsically linked with the holiday season, just as there’s no good reason why this delicious nutrient-dense super fruit, which actually offers a number of important health benefits, cannot be enjoyed at any other time of the year!
Organic cranberries under the spotlight
Organic cranberries are the small, sweet red berries that grow on an evergreen species of trailing vine native to North America, where they have been cultivated by indigenous peoples for centuries. Treasured as a source of food and medicine (they were particularly prized for their wound healing properties), local Indian tribes also used them as a colourful dye for traditional clothing and blankets.
Sometimes known as “moss berries” or “bearberries” (they are a favoured treat for wild bears), cranberries are incredibly sweet and acidic. Dried at low temperatures in order to preserve an optimum number of beneficial nutrients, organic cranberries are also crammed with beneficial nutrients including:
Organic cranberries contain a generous quantity of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that helps to prevent the damage caused to our cells by free radicals, strengthens our immunity, and aids in the healing of wounds. In the olden days sailors routinely carried cranberries aboard their ships to avoid succumbing to scurvy, a debilitating condition caused by a lack of vitamin C.
They also contain vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant involved in immune function that also helps to maintain cell structure by protecting cell membranes (and may prevent or delay the type of chronic disease associated with free radicals), in addition to vitamin K, another vitamin that aids in the healing of wounds and is necessary for healthy bone structure.
Organic cranberries contain a wealth of valuable minerals, including:
- Calcium, which performs several important functions within the body, such as promoting strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions (including our heartbeat) and ensuring that blood clots normally
- Iron, which is essential in the manufacture of the red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body
- Magnesium, which helps in the conversion of the food that we eat into energy, ensures the correct function of our parathyroid glands (a gland that produces hormones, which are important for bone health) and is crucial for sound cardiovascular health
- Phosphorous, another mineral that supports the building of strong bones and teeth and helps to release energy from our food
- Potassium, which balances bodily fluids and may also help to lower blood pressure
- Sodium, which is commonly known as salt, and again helps to maintain the correct balance of bodily fluids and aids in digestion
- Zinc, a trace element that assists in the manufacture of new cells and enzymes, helps to process carbs, fat and protein and encourages the healing of wounds
Organic cranberries are also rich in dietary fibre which, according to the NHS, can help to prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Fibre also helps to cleanse the intestines, regulate our bowel movements and promote feelings of fullness. In fact, sufficient quantities of dietary fibre can slow down the digestion of glucose and prevent the type of blood sugar highs and lows that are commonly associated with refined sugar. This allows excess glucose to be burnt as fuel, instead of being stored as unwelcome layers of fat – extremely good news for those battling to lose weight!
Flavonoids and Anthocyanins
Organic cranberries also contain flavonoids, which have shown antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-cancer properties in in vitro studies, as well as anthocyanins, naturally occurring pigments with antioxidant effects.
The much-overlooked health benefits of organic cranberries
Organic cranberries are considered a powerful superfood for good reason – extremely low in calories, yet positively bursting with goodness, organic cranberries have been directly linked to the four (often overlooked) health benefits detailed below.
1) Organic cranberries – preventing urinary tract infections
Urinary tract infections (also known as UTIs) are extremely common and affect more women than men. Indeed, the NHS estimates that half of all women in the UK will have a UTI at least once in their lifetime. UTIs can be very painful and cause a lot of discomfort. Symptoms include:
- A burning sensation when urinating
- A frequent need to urinate
- Pain in the lower abdomen
Organic cranberries are well known for their role in preventing UTIs, especially in those who suffer from recurrent infections. That’s because organic cranberries contain high levels of proanthocyanidins (PACs) – a class of polyphenols, called flavanols that help to reduce the adhesion of certain bacteria to the urinary tract walls, ultimately preventing infection. Two studies published in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology and Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces suggest that cranberry inhibits a bacterium called Proteus mirabilis, which is commonly found in urinary tract infections. And ‘The Cochrane Review’, a review of ten research trials that was published in 2008, concluded that women who took cranberry products suffered, on average, fewer urine infections than those who did not.
2) Organic Cranberries – reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a generic term that describes diseases of the heart or blood vessels. CVD can significantly reduce blood flow to the heart, brain or body as a result of the build-up of fatty deposits inside an artery (which causes it to harden and narrow) or a blood clot. Left unchecked it can lead to coronary heart disease (CHD), peripheral arterial disease, aortic disease or stroke. In the UK, it is believed that cardiovascular disease is responsible for around 1 in 3 premature deaths in men and 1 in 5 premature deaths in women.
CVD can, however, be prevented in many cases simply by making important lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking and enjoying a healthy and varied diet. And there is evidence that the polyphenols in organic cranberries may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by preventing platelet build-up and reducing blood pressure via their anti-inflammatory properties. Their magnesium content can also lower blood pressure demonstrably – scientific research published in the British Medical Journal revealed that patients undergoing long term diuretic treatment for arterial hypertension or congestive heart failure, who received a daily magnesium supplement for six months, saw a notable decrease in both their systolic and diastolic blood pressures. Lastly the large amounts of fibre found in organic cranberries plays a key role in lowering both blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The Department of Internal Medicine and Nutritional Sciences Program of the University of Kentucky maintains that high fibre intakes are associated with significantly lower risks for developing coronary heart disease, heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure) and stroke.
3) Organic Cranberries – combatting cancer
There are in excess of 200 different types of cancer – a disease caused when cells in a specific part of our body grow and reproduce uncontrollably and proceed to invade and destroy the surrounding tissue – and more than one in three of us will go on to develop some form of cancer during our lifetime.
Again, making sensible changes to diet and taking regular exercise can lower the risk of developing cancer. The vitamin C, K, manganese and phytonutrients that organic cranberries contain help to protect our body from harmful free radicals and provide both anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing properties. In vitro studies (‘anticancer activities of cranberry phytochemicals’) show that extracts and compounds isolated from organic cranberries inhibit the growth and proliferation of several types of tumour including breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer. Proanthocyanidin oligomers, flavonols, anthocyanin glycosides and triterpenoids are all believed to contribute to their anticancer properties and may combine to limit carcinogenesis.
4) Organic Cranberries – providing natural dental care
During the last twenty years sugar consumption in the UK has grown by a whopping 30 percent. As manufacturers increasingly use sugar to extend the shelf life or add cheap bulk to their processed food products, such as sauces, soups, bread, meat, salad dressings and soft drinks, many of us are consuming sugar without even realising it. This not only has a detrimental effect on our waistlines, it also partly explains why more of us are suffering from tooth decay at a younger age.
Both the calcium and phosphorous in organic cranberries are known to promote strong bones and healthy teeth and, according to researchers at the Center for Oral Biology and Eastman Department of Dentistry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the same proanthocyanidins in organic cranberries that help to combat urinary tract infections, such as cystitis, may also benefit our oral health by preventing bacteria from binding to our teeth and combatting gum disease.
Organic cranberries – not just for Christmas!
As you now know, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t limit your cranberry intake to the festive season alone. Organic cranberries can be enjoyed 365 days of year – try munching yours straight from the bag, or add them to a tasty trail mix for a delicious, yet sensible snack between meals. Organic cranberries are also ideal in smoothies, shakes and juices or as an additional ingredient in all manner of sweet and savoury rawfood recipes and snacks, including raw chocolate and desserts. The choice is as almost as endless as their beneficial properties!