Science of Food: The benefits of cranberry |

Science of Food: The benefits of cranberry

Lisa Julian, Ph.D.
Science of Food
In addition to its high vitamin C content, at least 150 different phytochemicals have now been characterized in cranberries that are known to help to improve cardiovascular function, reduce chronic inflammation and kill cancer cells.
Courtesy Getty Images | iStockphoto

With the Thanksgiving holiday, grocery stores are stocking their shelves with cranberries, a fruit native to North America, which will adorn most of our traditional turkey dinners. Cranberries used to grow wild, especially in the Northeast. And although the Native Americans were the first to use cranberries as food, medicines and dyes, the early settlers followed suit, which could explain why cranberries are now a part of our Thanksgiving holiday tradition. Today, cranberries are still widely cultivated domestically in that region and researchers are adamantly studying the precise chemistry that explains cranberries’ observed health benefits.


All plant-based foods contain “phytonutrients” or “phytochemicals” that benefit human health by a variety of biological mechanisms, acting as multi-taskers (refer to past Science of Food articles, “Eat your Electrons” and “For the Love of Chocolate” on for more information). The chemical structures of these phytochemicals vary widely, however those generally classified as polyphenolics share common features, being made up mostly of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms that are typically joined to aromatic rings (shaped like hexagons). Nearly all phytochemicals with this type of chemical make-up have antioxidant properties.

Antioxidants are fundamentally an abundant source of electrons that have the ability to quench free radicals and reduce ongoing oxidation inside the body that causes premature aging and disease. In addition to its high vitamin C content, a common antioxidant we are all familiar with, at least 150 different phytochemicals have now been characterized in cranberries, such as the proanthocyanidins, flavonoids (such as quercetin) and steroid-like structures (such as ursolic acid) that are known to help to improve cardiovascular function, reduce chronic inflammation and kill cancer cells.

Along with their antioxidant power, many of us know cranberries for their ability to aid in urinary tract infections. Researchers have now identified specific antibacterial molecules present in cranberries that interfere with the adhesion of bacteria to the lining of the urinary tract or bladder walls. Dr. Neto, professor at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth and co-founder of the Cranberry Health Research Center, has been studying how cranberries work inside the body for nearly 15 years. “Cranberry seems to be very broad acting,” she says. There are human clinical studies that support the use of cranberries to help prevent urinary tract infections.

Although some are skeptical, arguing that the compounds are metabolized too quickly in the body to have any chance at providing medicinal benefits, it’s important to be aware of the potential flaws in studies carried with individual cranberry components, as opposed to the whole cranberry. It is the molecular synergy of all the components of cranberries that will provide the optimal effects.

At Cornell University, researchers have identified specific compounds from cranberries that show bioactivity against tumor cell proliferation, effectively slowing the growth of cancer cells. Other researchers in Oklahoma are studying the health benefits of eating cranberries in human trials, specifically evaluating if and how the powerful compounds in cranberries improve metabolic function. They concluded, “our study findings, in combination with others, provide evidence on the role of specific cranberry products, such as low-calorie cranberry juice or dried cranberries, in attenuating dyslipidemia, hyperglycemia and biomarkers of atherosclerosis associated with metabolic syndrome.”


I advise (as usual) to eat the whole food, the real cranberry, instead of taking a cranberry supplement, in order to capture the molecular synergy of the 150 or more phytochemicals, along with all of the other vitamins and minerals present in this brilliant red fruit. Fresh cranberries are naturally a low-calorie food (46 calories per cup), but be aware when buying cranberry “products,” as they are often loaded with sugar. Look for low-sugar dried cranberries, or if you prefer the juice, make sure it also is low in added sugar.

For your holiday spread this year, try using fresh cranberries instead of canned. It’s easy to make a healthy and delicious cranberry relish from fresh berries that you can make with as little sugar that your taste buds will allow to ease their tartness. Simply simmer fresh cranberries with fresh squeezed orange juice (or other sugar source) until they begin to pop. Some prefer to blend everything raw and serve it that way.

There are lots of different ways to eat cranberries. So instead of saving cranberries for your yearly Thanksgiving meal, try incorporating cranberries into your daily diet. I often make oatmeal cranberry cookies or add a handful of dried cranberries to my salads. Or try using low-sugar cranberry juice for smoothies. The widespread use of the cranberry in traditional folk medicine is now supported by modern science and earns its title of a superfood.

Dr. Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry the “molecules of life,” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches Science and Nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at (970)401-2071 or For more information about services offered at her studio, visit

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