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Cranberry is a ruby-red coloured, tart berry that typically grows in the acid bogs. The plant is a low creeping evergreen shrub or vine that can measure up to two metres (7 ft.) in length and approximately five to twenty centimeters (2 – 8 inches) high. The slim, wire like stems are not overly woody and they hold the dark pink, refluxed flowers with exposed style and stamen. This allows for easy pollination by bees. The initially white fruit which develops is larger than the plant leaves, but turns a deep crimson colour when it reaches maturity. The acidity of the fruit overwhelms its sweet taste.

The botanical name for the most common type of berry is Vaccinium oxycoccos, or the European cranberry, a species native to Northern Europe, Asia and America. The name stems from the Latin word for cow “vacca” since cows seem to enjoy them too. The Oxycoccos is a reference to the plant’s sharp leaves.

Cranberries are also referred to as “bounceberries” since they actually bounce if fresh ones are dropped and “craneberries” as poetic justice to their pink flowers which give the appearance of cranes that make the cranberry bogs their home. “Bearberries” is another one of their names because bears too love them. The commercially cultivated berries in the U.S and Canada botanically known as Vaccinium macrocarpon, are grown over stumpy trailing vines on top of sandy bogs. These yield larger sized fruit than those found in the wild and Europe.

History of Cranberry

The Native American Indian tribes were familiar with this multifaceted fruit and had their own names for it. The Lenni-lenape Indians of New Jersey, called it “ibimi” or “bitter berry”, the Chippawas referred to it as “a’ni-bimin”, the Alogonquin called it “atoqua” and Naragansetts named it “sasemineash”. They used them as food and to symbolize friendship and peace. It was consumed raw or as a part of maple sugar mixture and even served with deer meat.

The Indians also recognized the preserving powers of the berries and frequently mixed them with pemmican (a mixture of dried meat) to preserve it. Additionally they were used for decorating purposes, to produce red dye and medicinally. The Indians made a wrap of crushed barriers to apply on wounds, where their astringent tannins helped to contract tissues and stop bleeding. We know that they also have antibiotic effects which probably helped to prevent infections as well.

The Pilgrims learned about the use of cranberries from the native tribes and were exporting them to England by the 18th century. In the days of the clipper ships, they were carried aboard in barrels to prevent scurvy. It is thought that cranberries were doled out in the early Thanksgiving dinners in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Cranberry juice was also extracted by the early settlers.

The resilient berries ended up in Holland by surviving a shipwreck. An American ship with crates of the fruit sank near the Dutch coast. A large number of the crates washed onto the island of Treschelling and took root. Cranberry cultivation has taken place there ever since.

Conscious cultivation of cranberries was initiated in 1840 when Henry Hall noticed that large sized berries began growing each time sand was deposited into his bog by prevailing winds and tides. The sand filled bog created the ideal conditions for growing berries by smothering the growth of low rooted weeds and promoting the growth of the deep rooted cranberries.

Health Benefits of Cranberry

The American Indians were always familiar with the medicinal properties of berries, but now even science collaborates this. Cranberries are not longer just a staple during the holiday season. The fact that cranberries treat urinary tract infections is a long established truth. Now we also know that they may enhance gastrointestinal and oral health, decrease LDL and elevate HDL (good) cholesterol, help to recover from stroke, and even provide help in preventing cancer. According to a study published in the “British Journal of Nutrition” in August 2006 and conducted at Laval University, Canada, a study group of obese patients registered an increase in HDL after consuming 8 ounces of cranberry juice daily for four weeks.

Vitamins C and E are antioxidants found in profuse amounts in cranberry juice, in addition to flavonoids that possess anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Together they work to fight E. coli, bacteria that can cause urinary tract infection, eliminate Helicobacter Pylori bacteria from the body which is linked with ulcers and stomach cancer, and get rid of streptococcus mutants from the body, the bacteria known to cause tooth decay. The antioxidants also remove free radicals before they impair healthy body cells.

Consumption of cranberries is beneficial in preventing a number of cancers including breast, colon, lung and prostate. They are able to do this by blocking expression of MMPs (matrix metalloproteinases), inhibiting ODC (ornithine decarboxylase enzymes), stimulating QRs (quinone reductase enzymes) and activating apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumor cells.

Nutritional Value of Cranberry

The fact that phytonutrients have cancer fighting capabilities is common knowledge, what may not be known is the fact that cranberries house a wide range of these powerful nutrients. Among them are phenolic acids like hydroxycinnamic, caffeic, coumaric, and ferulic acid, anthocyanins which include cyanidins, malvadins and peonidins, proanthocyanidins in particular epicatechins, flavonoids that include quercetin, myricetin, and kaempferol and the triterpenoid, ursolic acid.

Fresh cranberries are low in calories with a one hundred gram serving (approximately 1 cup) delivering only 46 calories. Same quantity also provides 12.2 grams of carbohydrates, 4.6 grams of fibre and 4 grams of sugar. In the mineral department as well they are not lacking with 7% of the Recommended Daily Allowance of copper and 20% of manganese. Noteworthy vitamins in a single serving include 13 milligrams of vitamin C which is close to 20% of the RDA, 6% pantothenic acid and 7% vitamin E.

Uses of Cranberries

While cranberries tend to be a bit too tart and many people prefer not to eat them out of hand, it does not meant they can’t benefit from this valuable fruit. Cranberries can be wonderful additions to a large number of dishes starting with quick breads, salads, relishes, chutneys, salsas, moving on to soups, desserts, and entrees based on grains.

The tartness of cranberry can be used to replace the lemon or vinegar in a green salad. In a fruit salad they can be mellowed by combining with sweeter fruits like oranges, apples, pears or pineapples. Equal parts of cranberry juice and fruit juice of choice with sparkling mineral water produces a refreshing spritzer for a great pick-me-up. Add a handful of berries to a bowl of cereal for a perfect start to your day. Dried cranberries mixed with some salted nuts make a great midday snack.

A Few Quick Ways to Use Cranberries

  • Throw in some dried cranberries to your favourite muffin recipe.
  • Mix crushed cranberries, orange juice and honey to taste and freeze on popsicle sticks.
  • In a food processor, puree cranberries with some orange juice and boil down to syrup-like texture. It creates the perfect complement on waffles or pancakes.
  • Combine cranberry sauce and plain cream cheese for a great tasting bagel topping.
  • When getting ready to bake apple, hollow out the core and stuff with cranberries mixed with sugar and cinnamon.

Clinical Trials

Urinary tract infection (UTI) is painful at best and cause permanent kidney damage in more serious forms. Women are prone to get it more frequently than men, with roughly half the female population getting some form of infection at some point in their lives. A randomized, placebo-controlled study conducted in Japan between 2007 and 2009 studied the effect of cranberry juice on patients with multiple relapses of the infection. The study subjects were patients aged between 20 to 79 years. The subjects were divided into two groups, with one group being given cranberry juice daily and the other a placebo drink. The patients drank 125 ml of the juice every night for twenty four weeks before going to bed. Recurrence of UTI was prevented in the group drinking cranberry juice.

In a study carried out at the University Hospital in Olomouc, Czech Republic in 2010, the effectiveness of cranberry powder in men at risk of prostate disease with lower urinary tract symptoms was investigated. The evidence that cranberries may improve LUTS, a common ailment in older men was found, and as a result reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

According to a 2010 study carried out at William Harvy Rsearch Institute in England, cranberry juice cocktail daily can prove to be as good for the heart as red wine as both drinks promote healthy arteries. Tests were carried out using cranberry juice cocktail, light cranberry juice cocktail, a California merlot and an Argentine cabernet sauvignon on endothelin-1 (a marker of blood vessel dilation/constriction) and it was discovered that changes in both were similar.

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About Andy Williams

In a processed food culture, simply eating may not be enough. Dr. Andy Williams is a scientist with a strong interest in Juicing and how it can supply the body with the nutrients it needs to thrive in modern society. You can subscribe to his free daily paper called Juicing The Rainbow and follow him on Facebook orTwitter.

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