The Native Americans did the pilgrims a big favor, when they introduced them to the cranberry. Packed with phytochemicals, these berries can stave off everything from heart disease to cavities.
As with that other New England native, the blueberry, cranberries get much of their disease-fighting abilities from their high levels of antioxidants -- nutrients thought to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Recent research also suggests that the phytochemicals in cranberries may aid in the fight against heart disease. In one study, participants who drank three glasses of sweetened or unsweetened cranberry juice daily saw their HDL, or "good," levels of cholesterol increase by an average of 10 percent. Cranberries may also help blood vessels relax in people with hardening of the arteries, and they have some power to protect brain cells against the damage that can occur with stroke.
The cranberry's biggest claim to fame, though, is preventing urinary tract infections (UTI). Although it has long been a folk remedy, researchers recently have discovered that cranberries contain compounds that stop bacteria from sticking to the lining of the urinary tract and bladder, allowing the bacteria to be flushed from the body. However, cranberries work only as a preventative; once the bacteria have imbedded themselves in the bladder wall and started an infection, cranberries don't seem to help. The berries' bacteria-busting quality crosses over to other parts of the body, as well: New research suggests that they can prevent infections in the gastrointestinal region and stop bacteria from sticking to teeth and causing cavities.
How to Buy
Cranberries are usually only available in markets from September through December, but they keep well. You can refrigerate fresh cranberries for up to four weeks or freeze them for up to a year.
Raw, fresh cranberries offer the most nutritional value. To make them more palatable, mix them with apples, apricots, and oranges. To keep antioxidant levels high, cook cranberries just until tender.
Text by Frances Lefkowitz