With Thanksgiving just around the corner, you're probably already looking forward to a huge deceptive feast of turkey, green bean casserole, sweet potato, stuffing, pumpkin pie and of course, cranberry sauce. But wait! Why are cranberries mainly associated with this time of year?
Thanks for cranberries
"Indian use of cranberry dates back to before the first European visitors came to North America in the early 16th century," said Jenna A. Bell, Ph.D., RD, senior vice president and director of food and wellness at Pollock Communications. She is also a co-author of Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Promote Your Active Lifestyle (Wiley, 2009).
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"Indians used cranberries in cooking and as medicine, as a food preservative and coloring," she says. “They passed on their knowledge of lingonberries to colonial settlers at the beginning of the 17th century. It was first planted commercially in Massachusetts in 1816 and is one of three commercially grown fruits native only to North America. "
Wisconsin – the No. 1 cranberry producer in the US for 24 years in a row – has more than 250 growers who produce cranberries on around 21,000 acres of land. And contrary to what you might think after watching an Ocean Spray commercial, cranberries are not grown in water.
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This perennial plant grows on low-running vines in sandy bogs and swamps. As cranberries float, Wisconsin marshes flood when the fruits are ready to be harvested, which happens from late September through October.
Cranberry health benefits
Bell says cranberries are full of health benefits, including the following:
- Immune booster. Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant substances that protect us (and often plants) from our dangerous environment – such as oxidants, pollutants and pathogens. The polyphenol commonly found in cranberries is proanthocyanidin (PAC), which is known for its anti-adhesion properties. That is, it prevents bacteria (such as those that cause infections) from clinging to cell walls. Perhaps it is no accident that these beautiful berries are easily available during the cold and flu season.
- Boost before and after training. Cranberries – especially dried ones – are a quick and convenient way to get the glucose you need for your workout. After exercising, the glucose will stimulate your body to replenish your glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates). This is especially helpful if you are involved in exercise, especially high-intensity interval training or an activity that requires bursts of energy like soccer or sprints.
- Improved recovery. Polyphenols can also provide protection from free radical damage associated with stress or exercise. This can help improve recovery from a tough workout and prepare you for the next workout.
- Heart health. Along with a plant-based diet and plenty of exercise, Bell says hearts can benefit from eating cranberries. One study found that compounds in cranberry juice improve circulation and improve blood vessel function.
Instead of banishing them to the holidays, think of cranberries as a year-round superfruit that highlights a sweet or savory dish, adds a unique tartness and adds a festive splash of color.
"Cranberries are one of our main ingredients because of their fabulous taste, variety of uses, aesthetics, health benefits, and local origins," said Amy Scheide, co-owner of Great Expectations, a popular lunch spot in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin.
"Here, in the heart of cranberry land, we source from local farmers – many of whom are fourth and fifth generation breeders – and give everything from drinks and our signature chicken salad to wild rice bread and desserts their flavorful punch," she said says.
Fresh cranberries (which will freeze well for up to a year) are naturally low in sugar and acidic, like a lemon or a rhubarb. If you want a little sweetness, experiment with different recipes, juice, sauces or enjoy them dried.
Recipes for Thanksgiving (and beyond!)
Cranberry Walnut Sweet Potatoes
Power: 8 servings
- 4 large sweet potatoes
- ¼ cup finely chopped onions
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 cup of fresh or frozen cranberries
- ⅓ cup of maple syrup
- ¼ cup of water
- ¼ cup of cranberry juice
- ¼ teaspoon salt, divided
- ½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 2 tbsp chopped chives
- Scrub and pierce sweet potatoes. Bake at 400 F for 1 hour or until tender.
- Fry the onions in butter in a small saucepan. Add the cranberries, syrup, water, cranberry juice and ⅛ teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the berries burst, stirring occasionally. Stir in walnuts and mustard; Heat through.
- Halve the potatoes lengthways. Sprinkle with pepper and the remaining salt. Pour 2 tablespoons of cranberry mixture over each and sprinkle with chives.
Cranberry Wild Rice Pilaf
Power: 6-8 servings
- ¾ cup of uncooked wild rice
- 3 cups of chicken broth
- ½ cup pearl barley
- ¼ cup of dried cranberries
- ¼ cup of dried currants
- 1 tbsp butter
- ⅓ cup of almond slices, toasted
- Rinse and drain rice and place in a saucepan. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Take off the stove. Stir in barley, cranberries, currants and butter. Put the spoon in a greased 1½ liter baking dish.
- Cover and bake at 325 F for 55 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender.
- Add the almonds, fluff with a fork and serve.
- 2 cups of frozen cranberries
- 2 cups of non-fat vanilla yogurt
- 2 cups of 1% milk or almond milk
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
Beat in a blender until smooth. Makes 6 smoothies.
Leftover cranberry turkey salad
Combine shredded turkey scraps with just enough mayo to moisten the meat. Add onion powder, walnuts, and chopped fresh cranberries (to taste).