As you’re simmering your cranberries with sweetness this holiday season, you can thank Mother Nature for their astringent qualities.
The compounds that produce the cranberry’s bite — their proanthocyanins (PACs) — not only ward off enemies such as small animals and insects but provide possible health benefits for us human predators.
PACs in cranberries have extremely strong chemical bonds, says Amy Howell, Ph.D., a research scientist at Rutgers University. Instead of being broken down and absorbed into the blood, they appear to travel intact and take their benefits with them, to various parts of your body.
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While cranberry juice’s ability to efficiently fight infections has been called into question, Jeffrey Blumberg has done research to identify why there may be conflicting results, and Howell is among those who suggest potential health benefits in areas such as these:
- Stomach and bladder: You may already be familiar with how cranberries are reported to benefit these organs. PACs bind to harmful bacteria that cause ulcers and urinary tract infections and thus keep those bugs from adhering to the stomach lining and bladder walls. If the bacteria can’t stick, then they can’t multiply and cause damage, Howell says. “Thus, they harmlessly leave the body.”
- Mouth: The same action happens here. PACs can help bind bacteria that contribute to decay and gum disease.
- Intestines: But it’s new research on how cranberry’s PACs behave in the gut of model animals that’s getting berry scientists excited. PACs can improve the bacteria in the colon, Howell says, and compounds produced by those bacteria have far-reaching effects on your health.
“A top story on cranberry right now, just published in a very prestigious journal [Gut], is beautiful evidence for how compounds in cranberries — PACs in particular — act in the gut,” says Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University.
Fermentable fiber and your health
When it comes to fiber, “fermentable” is the latest buzzword. Once foods have been digested in the small intestine, the parts that aren’t digestible — their fiber — then travel to the large intestine. There, healthy bacteria feed on certain plant fibers and ferment them into important fatty acids. In turn, those fatty acids get absorbed into the blood and help control blood sugar, appetite and inflammation. They also help enrich your gut lining, which acts as a barrier to keep harmful particles from leaking out or in.
And that’s where cranberries come in. “The fiber in cranberry skins serves as a prebiotic to help establish colonies of probiotic bacteria,” Howell says. In addition, she is researching the possibility that cranberry’s PACs may help keep harmful bacteria such as E coli from invading the gut.
“This is very, very, very exciting stuff,” Lila says. “The cranberry PACs were able to create a healthy population of gut bacteria in those animals and protect against obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation caused by a poor diet,” she says.
In addition to PACs, cranberries have about 150 healthy compounds, as identified in research led by Jonathan Bock and Howell on esophageal and pharyngeal cancer — vitamins C and E; anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants and give them their vivid color; quercetin and myricetin, which bind minerals (iron and copper) that promote oxidation. Howell suggests that many of the compounds in cranberries may protect DNA from damage caused by oxidation and help guard against inflammation in body tissues beyond the colon.
- Cardiovascular system: Research suggests that regularly consuming cranberry products “can reduce key risk factors for heart disease,” says Howell, by reducing inflammation and oxidation of harmful LDL cholesterol and by increasing good HDL cholesterol and the flexibility of arteries.
- Brain: Scientists think that some of these anti-inflammatory compounds may also protect the brain against damage caused by stroke or aging, Howell says.
- Cancer: Preliminary studies, all done in lab animals and cell cultures, suggest that cranberry’s compounds have the potential to inhibit tumor growth of some types of cancer, but much research remains to be done, suggests Howell.
If you’re still stirring those cranberries, you may be wondering whether all that cooking will destroy their healthy benefits. Howell suggests that “cranberry PACs are not seriously damaged by cooking or processing.” But other health-promoting compounds may be damaged by heat, and the effects of cooking on foods “is an area that needs considerably more research,” says Ron Prior, a research chemist at the University of Arkansas. In general, harsh cooking methods will result in degradation.
With all the scientists out there investigating berries, the dream is that there will be a verdict on cranberries by next season’s holidays. For this year, however, we’re sticking to a quick cooking method — in hopes of pleasing some hungry guts. Should we tell them about the microbes?
Quick Cranberry Sauce, with healthy bugs
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 8 servings, 1/2 cup each
4 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 oranges, juice and zest
1 teaspoon grated ginger
4 to 6 tablespoons maple syrup
1. Put cranberries and water in a medium saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Take off heat. Add cinnamon, orange juice and zest, ginger and maple syrup. Sprinkle pecans on top.
3. Cranberries have no sugar, so you do have to sweeten them. Start with 4 tablespoons, let the dish sit for a while, then decide whether you want more.
Main photo: Cranberry sauce. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller