Cranberry season’s here, and that’s excellent news for your gut health, your immunity, and more

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Photo: Getty Images/Nataliya Gaus

It’s no secret that berries are good for us. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries—they’re all packed with antioxidants, fiber, and many other all-star nutrients. However, there’s one often-overlooked berry that’s also oozing with health benefits: cranberries. And no, they’re not just great in your mom’s delicious Thanksgiving sauce.

Cranberries are actually higher in antioxidants than other fruits and berries, says nutritionist Jenna Gorham, RDN. They’re also lower in sugar than many other fruits, with only four grams of natural sugar per cup. (Hence, their tart flavor.) Not too shabby.

What are the health benefits of cranberries?

1. Cranberries can help prevent urinary tract infections

When you think of cranberry juice, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s said to help with urinary tract infections, which board-certified family medicine physician and The 10-Day Total Body Transformation author Shilpi Agarwal, MD, confirms.

That’s because cranberries are loaded with an antioxidant called proanthocyanidins, or PACs for short. “PACs reduce the ability for bacteria to stick to the wall of the urinary tract and thus reduce chances of developing urinary tract infections,” she says. So if you’re prone to getting UTIs, cranberries are your BFF. (As is drinking a lot of water.)

2. They can improve your digestion

Fiber is great for overall gut health, and cranberries are packed with it—one cup has about 4.6 grams of fiber, Graham says. “This is important because we need fiber for a healthy digestive system and to maintain regular bowel movements,” Dr. Agarwal adds. Plus, fiber keeps you fuller longer, which means you’re less likely to reach for a not-so-healthy snack.

3. They may reduce bad cholesterol

“Research is also suggesting that regular consumption of low-calorie cranberry juice can reduce LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides, another component of cholesterol,” Dr. Agarwal says. If you are chugging cranberry juice, make sure it’s all natural without added sugar—studies show the sweet stuff has the opposite effect on cholesterol levels.

4. They can help prevent gum disease

Remember those PACs? The urinary tract isn’t the only place these anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory antioxidants work their magic. “Preliminary studies show that cranberries can help reduce bacteria’s ability to stick and grow in the oral cavity and limit gum disease, in the same way as they do with UTIs,” Dr. Agarwal says.

5. They could boost your immune system

When you feel the sniffles coming on, you might reach for some good old orange juice to load up on vitamin C and give your immune system a boost. But cranberries are actually high in the essential nutrient as well. “Just one cup of cranberries contains 22 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C,” Gorham says. So if you’re feeling under the weather, load up on cranberries to help your body fight back. (Just don’t rely on them alone—sleep, exercise, and healthy foods are also important for keeping your immune system strong, says Dr. Agarwal.)

health benefits of cranberries
Photo: Getty Images/Natashamam

How to incorporate cranberries into your diet

Eating whole cranberries in their natural form is definitely the best way to soak up all their powerful antioxidants and nutrients. “Cranberries are easy to add into smoothies, a warm bowl of oatmeal, or homemade breads and muffins.” Gorham says. “They also make great salsas and sandwich spreads.” And if you’re feeling festive, you can try out her cranberry kombucha mule (yum!) or her Thanksgiving grilled cheese sandwich recipes.

The thing that deters many people from incorporating cranberries into recipes is their tart taste, Gorham explains, which is why so many dishes that include them are loaded with sugar. If you’re not digging the tartness but still want to consume the healthy berry, then she suggests countering it with a splash of 100 percent orange juice or other whole fruits to dial up the sweetness. “Heating and cooking cranberries can also help to release some of their natural sweetness,” she says.

Whatever you do, just avoid packaged, dried cranberries at all costs. “They’re usually full of sugar, at least 20 grams per serving,” says Dr. Agarwal. “So while you think you are doing something healthy for your body, the negatives outweigh the benefits in that form.”

Cranberry supplements are another way to get your dose. However, both Dr. Agarwal and Gorham mainly recommend this for those who are prone to frequent UTIs. Otherwise, stick to eating or drinking your cranberries—doesn’t a cranberry mojito mocktail sound a whole lot tastier, anyway?

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