Cranberries: Our Favorite Thanksgiving Superfood

As you plan your health-conscious Thanksgiving menu, please make plenty of room for our favorite Thanksgiving superfood- the cranberry. Though it might not sound as exotic as acai or mangosteen, the humble cranberry is actually a superfood in its own right. Harvested from leafy evergreen shrubs or vines in northern regions of the world, from Canada to Russia, cranberries are initially white and develop their familiar deep red shade as they ripen. They are also a major crop in some parts of the United States and were an important source of food and medicine to Native Americans long before they became a part of the earliest Thanksgiving meals. Naturally high in antioxidants. In their natural state, cranberries have no fat or cholesterol, and very low sodium. They are a good source of vitamins E and K and a very good source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, and manganese. The antioxidant effects of cranberries come from their phytonutrients - ellagic acid, flavonoids (like quercetin) and other polyphenols (like hydroxycinnamic acid), and anthocyanins (like resveratrol). Pronouncing most of these terms is a mouthful on it’s own, but the bottom line is that there is a lot of good stuff in cranberries that can help to ward off disease and keep your body functioning properly.  Cranberries have long been used for aiding the prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and studies have shown that can help reduce cholesterol levels and decrease blood pressure.  Given that approximately one in three Americans have high blood pressure, and about one in six have high blood cholesterol levels, these effects are not insignificant. Benefits are seen with supplementation of 300-400 mg; if you prefer juice, aim for 8-10 oz a day. Be wary of added sugar. Before you go cranberry crazy, however, remember that a lot of the products you find on the shelves of the supermarket - from juices to jellies - contain large amounts of sugar. These highly sweetened foods tend to be high-glycemic and promote inflammation and weight gain, so they should be consumed only in moderation. You can get the same benefits and avoid excess sugar intake by diluting your cranberry juice cocktail (as the sweetened juice is called) with water or sparkling water, or looking for an unsweetened juice that can be mixed with another, naturally sweet fruit juice to cut through the tartness. And of course, one benefit of mixing up your own cranberry juice is that you can substitute some of the sugar with less refined forms of sugar, or other sweeteners like honey, steviaor agave syrup. Add them to sauces and pastries. Because they have such a strong, tart flavor, cranberries are best paired with milder, sweeter foods. Add some dried cranberries to your next muffin, bread, or cookie mix to boost the flavor and antioxidant level. They go well with white and dark chocolate, as well as other fruits like oranges, apples, and strawberries. These fruits can be also mixed into a homemade cranberry jelly or compote, along with spices like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cranberries are great for desserts, but they work in savory foods too. Build your own salad with a spinach or other leafy green base, some nuts (walnuts, pecans, and almonds work especially well), and a creamy cheese like feta, blue cheese or chevre, and throw in some dried cranberries or top it with a cranberry-flavored vinaigrette. Cranberries also make an excellent addition to couscous and rice pilafs, or poultry dishes like chicken and - no surprise here - turkey! Happy Thanksgiving! For some cranberry recipe inspiration, check out these yummy recipes:

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