You may only think of eating cranberries around Thanksgiving, but this fruit can add some zing (and plenty of health benefits) year-round.
Cranberries, which are mostly carbs and fiber, contain about 90% water. They also contain vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K and manganese.
But fresh cranberries tend to be sour and are rarely eaten raw. You’ll mostly see cranberries in juice form, but cranberry juice also tends to include added sugars.
So is it worth it to add cranberries to your diet? And what’s the best way to eat them?
Registered dietitian Candace O’Neill, RD, LDN, talks about the benefits of cranberries and how to work them into your meals.
Health benefits of cranberries
Cranberries can be very nutritious. “They’re a powerhouse of antioxidants,” says O’Neill. Here’s how cranberries can benefit your health.
Prevent urinary tract infections
Probably the most known benefit of cranberry juice is that it can prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). But O’Neill stresses that cranberries don’t treat the infection once you have it.
“A-type proanthocyanidins prevent the binding of E. coli in the bladder, which is normally the first step of getting a UTI,” says O’Neill.
If you’re someone who gets UTIs often, adding cranberries to your diet can be beneficial.
“If you’re someone who struggles with UTIs, including cranberries as a part of a healthy diet is something that you can do that won’t harm you,” says O’Neill. “It could be a proactive approach.”
You may not immediately think of cranberries as a way to prevent cavities, but research shows the same a-type proanthocyanidins that help prevent UTIs can help in other ways.
“Researchers think a-type proanthocyanidins are responsible for preventing bacteria formation in the mouth as well,” explains O’Neill.
By controlling those harmful acids in your mouth, cranberries could help prevent not only cavities, but also gum disease, tooth decay and oral cancer.
Cranberries have anti-inflammatory effects, thanks to their high amounts of antioxidants, especially anthocyanins and flavanols, which give cranberries their dark hue.
“Antioxidants have been shown to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases because they can help lower inflammation in our bodies,” says O’Neill. “That’s why it’s recommended to consume enough servings of fruits and vegetables because those foods will use antioxidants.”
Maintain digestive health
If you eat an animal-based diet, cranberries can help put good bacteria into your digestive system.
“A-type proanthocyanidins, which are only found in cranberries, can help with reducing the bad microbes that live in your colon,” says O’Neill.
More research still needs to be done, but there’s a chance that cranberries could help prevent colon and gastrointestinal cancers.
Improve heart health
From lowering blood pressure to improving your cholesterol levels, cranberries can help improve your overall heart health.
“There’s limited evidence that cranberries can potentially help improve someone’s lipid profile by raising their HDL (good) cholesterol,” notes O’Neill.
Cranberries may also help lower your LDL (bad). O’Neill says it’s important to know that many of these studies used a low-calorie cranberry juice.
As you’ve probably learned by now, a-type proanthocyanins are a powerful antioxidant. So researchers are starting to study if and how they may have anticancer properties.
“We know in general that eating enough non-starchy vegetables and getting enough fruits in your diet reduces your risk of certain cancers,” says O’Neill.
Are cranberries healthy?
It’s a tricky question to answer, says O’Neill. In their raw state, they can be healthy. But if you get your cranberry fix through juice or dried cranberries, be aware that there’s plenty of added sugar used in both forms.
“In general, one serving of dried cranberries has around 25 grams of added sugar,” says O’Neill. “That’s actually how much added sugar some people can have in a day.”
That sugar is added to offset the tart flavor of cranberries. “They need that sweetness to be a little bit more palatable,” explains O’Neill.
But that doesn’t mean you need to avoid cranberry juice or dried cranberries. You just need to be smart about your sugar intake and pair cranberries with foods that contain less sugar.
For example, you can make trail mix at home by using lightly salted roasted nuts and dried cranberries instead of the candy pieces you typically find in store-bought trail mix.
Pair plain yogurt or oatmeal with dried cranberries instead of honey for a sweet treat. O’Neill suggests looking for unsweetened dried cranberries, but says they are hard to come by. You may be able to find them at a health food store or online.
When it comes to juice, most options are a “juice cocktail” that combines cranberry juice with apple juice to make it sweeter.
“When you’re consuming it in that form, you’re not getting 100% cranberry juice,” says O’Neill.
And watch how much juice you consume. O’Neill says the recommendation is no more than 4 to 8 ounces of juice per day. You can try this tip from O’Neill: Dilute juice with sparkling water or plain water to add a touch of sweetness to your beverage.
Cranberry side effects
Most people can eat or drink cranberries with no issue. But cranberries can be a risk factor for those with kidney stones.
Kidney stones are commonly made of calcium oxalate. Cranberries contain high levels of oxalate.
Also, those who take blood thinners should limit their consumption of cranberries due to their amount of vitamin K, which can interfere with the medication.
“I would talk to your healthcare practitioner or pharmacist about whether or not it’s safe for you to consume cranberry products,” advises O’Neill.
If you’re considering adding cranberries to your diet, O’Neill suggests buying fresh cranberries when they’re in season, typically September through October. You can freeze them and keep them on hand for a variety of recipes like smoothies, sauce or salad dressing.
“Keeping cranberries in your fridge or your freezer is an easy way to add in those antioxidants and help improve your health all year long,” O’Neil adds.