There may be no fruit that is at once so connected with holidays and health benefits than the cranberry. American Indians used this perennial fruit for its outstanding nutrition benefits, which have been rediscovered by nutraceutical companies.
Cranberries contain antioxidants called proanthocyanidins, more commonly known as condensed tannins, that can prevent bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder. This helps prevent bladder and other urinary tract infections.
But if you've been getting your dose from cranberry juice cocktail, you may be missing out on benefits. Cranberry juice cocktail contains a great deal of sugar and not that much real cranberry juice. You're better off with the whole fruit (fresh or dried), pure juice, or even cranberry capsules, especially if you frequently get UTIs. An independent analysis by Brunswick Laboratories shows that an ounce of sweetened dried whole cranberries equals the same antioxidant level as two 8-ounce glasses of cranberry juice cocktail, with one-third the calories and half the sugar.
But not all dried cranberries are created equal. Some manufacturers don't use the whole fruit, relying instead on the skins left over from the juicing process. This is especially true for low-cost varieties. In such cases, all you're getting is sugar-coated cranberry hulls.
Eating the whole cranberry is important because the seeds have omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids plus Vitamin E compounds.
Fortunately, it's easy to tell the difference — just look at your dried cranberries and you can see whether there are seeds.
I learned a lot about cranberries a few years ago when I met John Decas of Decas Cranberry Products in Massachusetts (you can shop online at decascranberry.com). He explained how his firm sorts cranberries from its bogs and drops them onto a belt. If a bright red berry does not bounce, it is discarded for mulch. Other companies press them for juice.
But even whole dried cranberries contain sugar, so they pack a caloric punch.
The best way to serve cranberries at the holidays is to make your own sauce out of fresh cranberries. My favorite is this cranberry chutney. It is easy to make and contains no added sugar. Try additions such as ¼ teaspoon ground ginger or curry powder for a twist on tradition.
Betty Wedman-St. Louis is a licensed nutritionist and environmental health specialist in Pinellas County who has written numerous books on health and nutrition. Visit her website at betty-wedman-stlouis.com.