There’s a superfruit that’s probably readily available at your grocery store – especially in late fall and winter. Best of all, you can get it in its whole food form.
Of course, you already know cranberries are the oft-overlooked superfruit. Acai, goji, and avocados are more likely to spill out of most mouths when asked to name superfruits.
Trust me, there’s a lot more to cranberries than you think. They can do a lot more than just support urinary tract health and they don’t actually grow in water.*
But before I dive into all of that, allow me to formally introduce to you the cranberry.
History of the Cranberry
First, cranberries are largely a North American crop. However, Europeans were already familiar with the crop before they arrived in North America (see below for a map of the world’s top cranberry producers). They weren’t calling it a cranberry at that time though. Instead, Pilgrims were calling it a craneberry because the flower looks strikingly similar to a crane. Check the picture out.
What happened to the ‘e’? Who knows? But cranberries are primarily grown in Massachusetts. So if you find the missing ‘e’, you’ll probably also find the ‘r’ that vanished from “car” and “sea monster”.
The Native Americans used cranberries not only as a food source, but also as a dye and to help preserve food throughout the lean winter months. This particular dish is called pemmican and is a mixture of cranberries, dried meat, and animal fat.
Eventually, the Pilgrims developed a particular love for the cranberry and sought to make it a primary crop.
Where Cranberries are Grown
Cranberries require some very special circumstances in order to grow.
- They have to grow in a bog
- The soil needs to be acidic
- There should be plenty of peat moss
- Cranberries need plenty of water
However, they are not grown in water. Cranberries actually grow on low-lying vining plants. They also grow better in areas with a bit of sand and clay. As you’d expect, that means the areas they grow are pretty limited.
How Cranberries are Harvested
The cranberry harvesting season is from mid-September to November. Obviously, since cranberries are grown in colder climates, that raises some issues toward the end of the harvesting season. In order to prevent them from freezing, farmers will spray water on the plants and berries to create a layer of protection.
As you can imagine, harvesting a vine that trails on the ground is back-breaking work. Thanks to that, there’s been a lot of innovation since the original settlers started farming cranberry bogs.
As far as the actual harvesting process goes, there are two ways cranberries can be harvested. The first one you’ll recognize from those commercials.
Many people are under the impression that cranberries grow on top of the water like lily pads. But that’s not what actually happens. As I mentioned earlier, cranberries grow on vines close to the ground. This raises some unique issues. Namely, farmers can’t bring large trucks in, drive over cranberries, or use much machinery without harming their product.
So what they do instead is flood the cranberry bog until the vine tips are just submerged. When it’s suitably flooded, they float in water reels (colloquially named, “egg beaters”) in order to get the cranberries off of the vines.
These egg beaters churn the water and stimulate the vines to release their payload. Cranberries naturally float to the top because they have air pockets inside of them. Afterwards, plastic or wooden booms are used to corral the berries (as seen in the image).
They’re dragged to a conveyor belt or pumped into a truck so they can be cleaned and processed.
Wet harvested berries are used for juices, sauces, supplements, or may be dried out. This amounts to approximately 90% of cranberries harvested in Massachusetts.
The other 10% are sold as fresh fruit. In order for this process to work, the fields must be completely dry (which can sometimes be a dangerous waiting game). When the field is ready, growers walk behind a machine (think of a lawn mower that picks up cranberries) that deposits the berries into a burlap sack. Once full, the burlap sack is left on the ground to be picked up later and the process is repeated until enough cranberries are picked.
It’s a much simpler process than wet harvesting.
How to Tell if Cranberries are Ripe
These are one of my favorite fruits to test. There’s no scratching and sniffing like with cantaloupe.
First and foremost, you need to take a look at the color. The brighter a cranberry is, the more antioxidants it’s likely to have. Stay away from dull-colored hues. Ideally, you want cranberries that are fire engine red. If they’re dark, they’re probably overripe. Too light means they’re going to be super bitter, so avoid those ones at all costs (unless you happen to like overly bitter food).
Next is firmness. You want your berries to be pretty firm. A little give (mostly due to the skin) is OK. Anything else is overly ripe – especially if you manage to leave what looks like your fingerprints on it.
Alternately, you can skip to my favorite part: the bounce test. Now, the goal here is not to whip them at the counter top to see how high they’ll go. They’re not superballs. A ripe cranberry will bounce, overly ripe will either stay pretty close to the counter top or they’ll hit it and stick.
Most manufacturers have a fairly sophisticated set-up to separate the cranberries that bounce from the ones that don’t. There’s a bounce board that shimmies the cranberries along to a conveyor belt. Only the berries that can adequately bounce their way there are kept. The ones that are past their prime get funneled out to be made into fertilizer.
Ripe cranberries are bright red. Being such a bright color automatically means they’re rich in antioxidants. In fact, cranberries boast more antioxidants than North America’s other superfruits: the blueberry and strawberry. Antioxidants help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals.
The primary benefits of cranberries are believed to be due to their flavanol content. The collective group of flavanols in cranberries in the form of oligomers and polymers are collective known as proanthocyanidins (PACs).
Cranberries are also a rich source of vitamin C and fiber. They contain so much vitamin C that sailors traditionally consumed them when on long voyages.
The abundance of fiber (20% from one cup) not only helps support regular bowel movements, but also helps feed the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in your gut.*
Urinary Tract Support*
Of course, cranberries are best known for their effect the urinary tract.* In fact, Native Americans historically used cranberries for this very reason.
In one placebo-controlled study involving 150 women, the effectiveness of cranberry juice versus tablets was tested. The study found that when women drank cranberry juice, they were 20% likely to have less-than-optimal urinary tract health. Tablets improved the percent to 18%. The placebo group was 32% likely to have issues with their urinary tract health.*
In another study, sweetened dried cranberries were consumed daily for two weeks. A significant reduction in less-than-optimal urinary tract health was noticed when compared to a previous group that did not consume cranberries. However, a mechanism of action was unable to be determined in this particular study.