Think cranberries, and you probably think of Thanksgiving. Whatever your association with the fall fruit, an impressive body of evidence proves that starting your day with a shot of cranberry juice, or tossing the dried berries into salads, stuffings, and side dishes, can confer major health benefits.
You've probably heard the sweet-tart juice can help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). "Drinking one or two 8-ounce glasses of cranberry juice a day is effective at preventing 50 percent of recurrent urinary tract infections," says Rutgers University research scientist Amy Howell, PhD. In a small study published in 2007, women with a history of recurrent UTIs took 200 milligrams of cranberry extract twice a day for 12 weeks. None developed a UTI. When researchers followed up two years later, study participants who continued to take the extract remained UTI free.
Proanthocyanidins, or PACs, are "antiadhesive" compounds found in cranberries that prevent E. coli from sticking to the urinary tract. While other foods contain PACs, a study led by Howell showed those in cranberries are shaped differently, endowing them with this Teflon-like ability. Mounting research also suggests "the antistick mechanism of cranberry PACs is effective not only in the urinary tract, but also in the stomach and mouth," says Howell. "In the stomach, they prevent the ulcer-causing bacteria H. pylori from sticking to cells. And in the mouth, they may play a role in preventing plaque buildup."
As Howell points out, the implications go beyond these ailments: "If we can use cranberry to prevent infections before they start, it could help to slow the development of antibiotic-resistant [bugs] and preserve our arsenal of antibiotics for when we really need them!"
Cranberries and Heart Disease
New research suggests cranberries might help on the cardiovascular front: in a study by the American Chemical Society, subjects who drank three glasses of unsweetened cranberry juice a day saw a 10 percent increase in their levels of HDL ('good') cholesterol, says Michael Ozner, MD, author of The Miami Mediterranean Diet. According to Ozner, it's the cranberry's powerful combination of antioxidant constituents that make it so heart-healthy: "Flavonoids, polyphenolic compounds, and high levels of beta-carotene, lutein, and vitamin A-they're all packed into the berry, and all have been shown to reduce cholesterol, boost HDLs, and reduce inflammation."
Related: Cranberry-Cherry Lattice Pie Recipe
To promote cranberries from a once-a-year cameo to a four-season star, you can drink 8 ounces of cranberry juice cocktail (27 percent cranberry) in the morning and evening (see 'DIY Cranberry Juice Cocktail,' p. 32, for a great, low-sugar option). 'Since cranberries' antistick effect lasts 12 hours, this may offer more complete 24-hour protection against UTIs," says Howell. You can also opt for 1/2 to 1 ounce unsweetened 100 percent cranberry juice, 1/4 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, 1/3 cup sweetened or dried cranberries, or 1/3 cup cranberry sauce. Chances are, if you indulge in any of these cranberry ideas as often as Carrie Bradshaw downs a cosmo, youíll be well on your way to reaping the health benefits.
DIY Cranberry Juice Cocktail
One of the biggest complaints about bottled cranberry juice is the high sugar content (and low low cranberry) content: a 1-cup serving contains more than 130 calories-beating out a sugary soft drink! For an easy homemade version that delivers a higher concentration of cranberry juice and a lot less sugar, follow these easy steps:
1. Mix 1 cup unsweetened cranberry juice with 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. agave nectar in heatproof, 1-qt. measuring cup.
2. Add a 2-inch cinnamon stick to juice mixture.
3. Stir in 4 cups boiling water. Cool, and enjoy.
Find 'em fresh
Check your supermarketís produce department September through December for prepackaged bags of cranberries. The best berries are firm, plump, and unblemished, and can range in color from dark to light red. Store for up to two weeks in the fridge and up to one year in the freezer.
Related: Cranberry-Pecan Salad
What to look for
Though Michael Ozner, MD, recommends getting your cranberry goodness in food form, cranberry extract can be found in the supplement aisle.
How to take it
Standard therapeutic dosage for cranberry extract powder is 300 to 400 milligrams twice daily in capsule form, or 4 to 5 milliliters of cranberry tincture three times daily.
Cranberry extract capsules are not recommended for children and pregnant women, nor are tinctures because they can have a high alcohol content.