The therapeutic virtues of cranberry have been known for a long time. For centuries it was used as a powder to apply on wounds and injuries. It is also used to treat scurvy, the condition caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, of which it is richly provided.
The story of cranberry
Native from acid bogs in eastern North America, cranberry was consumed at all times by various Amerindian nations. Native Americans gathered the berries from August until late fall, even during winter and early spring. Some of the fruits were eaten fresh, and the rest was set aside for the winter. It was kept in birch bark baskets or in peat moss. They also steamed them or they mixed them with fat. They also dried them, sometimes with deer meat. Cranberries were becoming part of the traditional pemmican (Native Americans traditional food, composed of dried meat, fat and dried fruits) or accompanied smoked fish.
In western America, where other species grew in the wild, the cranberries were under a certain trade. Native Americans harvested large quantities of them to sell in markets.
At least one species was found in Northern Europe and Asia, but only the species V. macrocorpon is grown commercially in the world. First commercial exploitation was born in Massachusetts in 1816. It was not until the 1930s that a producer in Quebec was also interested to sell them. Today, the two main producing countries are the United States and Canada. The production extends over 16 000 hectares in the North of the United States and in Canada (Québec, The Maritimes and British Colombia). Cranberries are also grown marginally in some European countries, including Ukraine and Belarus.
A fruit more and more popular
Traditionally, in North America, the cranberry was consumed during Thanksgiving and the Christmas period, in the form of a sauce accompanying Turkey. However, since the end of the 1950s, cranberry juice has gradually imposed on the market. Today, 80% of the production is used for cranberry juice.
The cranberry is a close to the North American blueberry, European bilberry, lowbush cranberry of Mount Ida (island of Crete) and various other berries of the genus Vaccinium.
All these plants have in common to be a little and creeping plant, to grow in acidic soils and to grow berries that are particularly rich in antioxidants. This explains their current popularity for people concerned about their health.
Fresh berries are available from September to December. You can also find them in juice markets, as concentrates, frozen berries and dried berries, and some are flavored with maple syrup. There are also a few specialty products such as mustard and cider cranberry vinegar, as well as mixed infusions with cranberry.
The benefits of cranberries
Infections of the urinary system. Consumption of cranberry juice or taking cranberry pills would be particularly effective for women to prevent urinary infections. However, to date, no study could demonstrate that consumption of juice or other products of the cranberry could cure infections of the urinary system.
For people prone to urinary infections, it is important to know which doses are the best.
Gastrointestinal disorders. Studies indicate that regular consumption of cranberry juice could prevent infections by Helicobacter pylori in the estomac. This bacterium is a cause of many stomach problems, including chronic gastritis’s and gastric and duodenal ulcers. The addition of cranberry juice with a conventional treatment would help to eliminate more effectively the bacterium.
Dental health. Consumption of cranberry and its various compounds reduces the formation of dental plaque, tooth decay and periodontal diseases. On the other hand, most of the commercial juices available on the market have a high sugar content and high acidity. Therefore, they are not beneficial in regards to mouth hygiene.
Various compounds isolated from the cranberry could be used as supplements to improve oral health. The flavonols and the proanthocyanidins extracted from cranberry have been shown to inhibit the production of acid by a bacterium involved in the development of tooth decay (Streptococcus mutan) and reduce the formation of dental biofilm which causes the formation of dental plaque.
Cardiovascular diseases. Several studies indicate that consumption of flavonoids in beverages and foods may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, a process leading to the onset of cardiovascular disease. In vitro research show that flavonoids extracted from cranberries would prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad cholesterol) and the aggregation of blood platelets, markers linked to cardiovascular diseases. In addition, the consumption of cranberry juice would increase HDL (good cholesterol). Consumed at the rate of 500 ml (2 cups) per day, a low calorie cranberry cocktail would significantly decrease the blood pressure.
Cancer. Several epidemiological studies have shown that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of certain cancers. In vitro studies show that extracts and compounds in cranberries may inhibit growth and proliferation of different types of cancer including breast, colon, prostate and lungs.
Protection of the neurons and Alzheimer’s disease. Cranberries, like blueberries, have been associated with protection effects of neurons (nerve cells). Studies among animals show that several small fruits could inhibit or reverse the loss of communication between brain cells. It would also prevent certain deficiencies related to the age that could affect various motor and cognitive aspects. Moreover, consumption of fruit and vegetable juices, and particularly of those extracts from cranberries, blueberries and bilberries could have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease.
What’s in a cranberry?
Antioxidant compounds would be more abundant in dried cranberries than in fresh cranberries, because of the concentration associated with the drying. They would however retain the same properties. But their added sugar content is often high, so it’s best eaten in moderate amounts.
The antioxidant ability of cranberries is now unanimously accepted in the scientific community. After the blueberry, that would be the fruit with the best antioxidant activity, with higher values than those of many other fruits such as strawberry, apples, grapefruit, peaches and red grapes.
Flavonoids. Cranberry contains different types of flavonoids. They are powerful antioxidants that can neutralize free radicals in the body and, thus, prevent the emergence of cardiovascular disease, some cancers and various diseases related to aging. The 3 main classes of flavonoids in cranberry are anthocyanins (which give the red coloration), flavonols and the proanthocyanines. These would also prevent the adhesion of the bacteria E.coli causing the infections to the sides of the urinary tract.
Resveratrol. Cranberry contains resveratrol, a polyphenol of stilbenes class. Although the antioxidant activity of resveratrol in red wine is very well documented, little research on this active compound in cranberries have been realised. According to a study, the concentration of resveratrol in cranberry juice would be similar to that in raisin juice.
Acid ursolique. Cranberry contains ursolique, a molecule of the triterpene acid class. This molecule would have an anticancer potential by inhibiting the proliferation of certain types of cancer cells (liver and breast).
In 2009, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency of the United Kingdom pointed out the possible interaction between warfarin (anticoagulant under the name Coumadin) and cranberry juice. Indeed, it has been shown in vitro that cranberry juice may increase the anticoagulant effect of the drug and cause bleeding. More recent studies are however questioning the findings of earlier clinical studies. Although evidence showing an interaction between warfarin and cranberry juice are low, it is still suggested that patients taking warfarin, or other blood thinner, are warned and limit or avoid consumption of cranberry products.
Selection and conservation
We often add sugar (glucose, fructose) to cranberry-based products because it has a sour flavor. It is therefore essential to carefully read the label to ensure that the product contains the least amount of sugar possible or preferably no sugar at all. Cranberry cocktails contain generally more water than juices, not to mention that it is not rare that food manufacturer add flavorings and artificial colors to them. From a nutritional point of view, it is better to obtain the pure juice or concentrate and adjust yourself the amount of water you want to add.
Refrigerator. The fresh berries can be kept for a few weeks and even months in the refrigerator, which is quite exceptional for a small fruit.
Freezer. Freeze them individually on a metal plate and put them in a bag in the freezer. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to add sugar before freezing.
The acidulous cranberry juice makes it an original ingredient to add to sauces and salad dressings. Filled with antioxidants, this refreshing juice prevents urinary infection and the appearance of several diseases.
We can cultivate the cranberry in the home garden, but it is essential that the soil is acid (pH around 4.5). In most cases, this requires to acidify it artificially, either by adding a good quantity of peat moss into the planting hole, or by modifying it with sulfur or acid fertilizer. Also you need a lot of water, firstly for irrigation of the plants, on secondly to protect them from the harsh cold (water limits the harmful effects of the freeze, as well as its drying action). However, unlike cash crops, it is not necessary to flood the plants when harvesting them. This practice is strictly intended to facilitate mechanized harvesting, which is advantageous because the fruits float.
The first harvest will take place 3 years after planting them. Don’t harvest the fruits when their color is deep purple red.
Ecology and environment
Cranberries are usually grown in bog lands, which raise some environmental concerns.
These fragile environments are particularly vulnerable to agricultural activities taking place there. The need to build ponds for this culture can cause siltation of water courses located downstream. Moreover, the use of large quantities of water for irrigation and flooding the cranberries at various stages of their growth has an impact on groundwater.
Fertilizer residues and chemical pesticides can also be found in the environment when the water of the ponds are drained, contaminating fish and other marine species. In addition, dams to retain the water can counteract the habits of fish spawning. Finally, the evacuation of the pond, with higher temperatures than those of the stream, causes a warming of the latter, which may adversely affect marine and aquatic life.
For the time being, these effects are relatively low, given the small size of cranberry production farms. In fact, it is estimated that urbanization and other forms of agriculture have a much greater impact on bogs. A positive point concerns cranberry bogs having a diverse fauna, including some endangered species: river otters, ducks, geese, bald eagles, foxes, minks of America.
For their part, producers adopt practices to gradually reduce the impacts of culture on the environment. For example, some recover all waters from drainage and irrigation of their basins, so as not to draw elsewhere (in rivers particularly). Others are studying the movement of water in the ground to develop techniques to limit the runoff. Finally, biological culture of this berry is growing, which can only have a positive effect on the environment.