Plot Twist: Cranberries Are Great for Your Digestive Health

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 for 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.) Hey, not too shabby.

What are the health benefits of cranberries?

health benefits of cranberries

1. Cranberries may 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. That's because cranberries are loaded with an antioxidant called proanthocyanidins, or PACs for short, according to Shilpi Agarwal, MD.“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.

Before you sip unsweetened cranberry juice for this explicit purpose, however, you should know that research on the subject is mixed. A 2017 review found that “evidence for cranberry juice in preventing UTIs was less than previously thought.” Some experts still recommend drinking cranberry juice as a preventative measure, but talking to your doctor and trying a better, science-backed natural remedy is a better bet until more research can be done.

2. They can improve your digestion

Fiber is great for overall gut health, and cranberries are packed with it—one cup has about 5.3 grams of fiber. “This is important because we need fiber for a healthy digestive system and to maintain regular bowel movements,” Dr. Agarwal adds. In other words, cranberry juice can help you poop. Plus, fiber keeps you fuller longer, which means you’re less likely to reach for a not-so-healthy snack.

3. 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.

4. 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.)

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."

This post was originally published on September 29, 2018. Updated on September 24, 2019.

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