by Denise Sullivan, Nutrition & Health Education Specialist, MU Extension-Jackson County
What tiny red fruit makes an appearance around the holiday but is mostly absent the rest of the year? If you guessed cranberries, you are correct! This tart but tasty fruit often appears in the form of a quivering gelled mass or chopped into a salad with apples or oranges, but they are much more versatile than most people think.
Native Americans enjoyed wild cranberries for thousands of years before colonization. The first documented reference to the American cranberry was in the mid 1500’s, when the Wampanoag People introduced the red berry to colonists in New England as a food source and as a dye. A common mixture called pemmican, made of ground berries, dried meat, and animal fat, could provide nourishment for months. Medicine men also used cranberries in traditional healing rituals to fight fever, swelling, and even seasickness. In the 1600’s, early cookbooks had numerous references to a sauce made from cranberries and served with turkey, much like we do today!
The cranberry (genus Vaccinium) belongs to the Ericaceae family of flowering plants. Cranberries are botanically related to bilberries, blueberries, and huckleberries, though differ by their woody stems. This low-growing, woody perennial shrub grows horizontal runners along the soil surface to form a dense mat. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water, but in sandy bogs and marshes that are flooded with water to aid in harvesting.
Because the cranberry contains a pocket of air, when the marsh is flooded, the berries float to the surface to be picked up by harvesting equipment. Cranberries were first cultivated in the New England region in the 1800’s and continues to be a staple crop in Maine and Massachusetts. However, Wisconsin has surpassed that region and produces more than 60% of the nation’s cranberries. They have even been designated the state fruit of Wisconsin.
Cranberries are a rich source of antioxidants vitamins C, E, and vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting, as well as the minerals manganese and copper. Cranberries are also rich in a type of phytonutrient called polyphenols, which are beneficial in controlling inflammation and free radicals in the body that contribute to chronic health conditions.
Consuming cranberry juice is often associated with urinary tract infections, because of another phytonutrient, A-type proanthocyanidins (PAC’s). PAC’s have been shown to be beneficial to the prevention (not treatment) of urinary tract infections by inhibiting the growth of bacteria in the urinary tract. Consuming more isn’t better, however, because cranberries are also high in oxalates, a contributor to kidney stones. Always consult your health care provider if experiencing symptoms of these conditions.
Cranberries are readily available during the fall and winter holiday season, but rather scarce the rest of the year, so I like to buy an extra bag or two to store in the freezer. Cranberry juice is usually sweetened or mixed with other fruits in juices. 100 percent cranberry juice is available as well…but be prepared to pucker up! I often add a bit of cranberry juice to iced tea or even water as a flavor enhancer. Dried cranberries are also available in various stages of sweetness and make a tasty addition to quick breads, salads, or other holiday dishes.
This month I’m sharing two unique ways to incorporate cranberries into your holiday meals. The stuffing recipe below is one that my daughter shared with me, that we have refined and personalized to our tastes. If you are feeling really adventurous, you might also try the cranberry salsa recipe from the National Center for Home Food Preservation (link below). Your leftover turkey sandwich will taste amazing…enjoy! https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_salsa/spicy_cranberry_salsa.html