Most people would agree cranberry sauce is a decadent way to top off your plate on Thanksgiving or other holiday get-togethers. After all, that sweet, tart, pucker in your mouth sauce pairs just as well with Tofurky, stuffing, and potatoes as it does with apple or pumpkin pie or even Brussels sprouts. It has a magical way of making everything it touches taste just a little bit better.
But if you're only eating it on holidays, you're missing out on lots of essential health benefits of cranberries. Cranberry sauce is one of the healthiest foods you can eat, not only during the holidays, but all year long. Here's why, and how to enjoy it all the way into next fall.
It's surprisingly healthy
You probably know that berries are good for you because of their antioxidants, but many don't realize cranberries are in the same category, and thus, have the same, and even more cranberry health benefits. They're one of the top sources of polyphenols, important plant compounds with wide-reaching benefits for almost every aspect of your health.
Cranberry sauce is packed with antioxidants
The antioxidants in cranberries act as free-radical scavengers that protect DNA in cells from damage that may lead to cancer. In addition, various compounds in cranberries have been shown to have anti-tumor effects. Both lab and animal studies suggest that cranberries have anticancer effects for 17 different types of cancers. Some cancer sites include stomach, prostate, colon, breast, esophagus, bladder, glioblastoma, and lymphoma.
Cranberries may reduce insulin resistance
Several lab, animal, and human studies on people with diabetes and insulin resistance have found that cranberries have a beneficial effect on insulin and blood sugar.
Eating them with a meal, even if they're sweetened as in cranberry sauce, causes a smaller increase in blood sugar levels than eating the same meal without cranberries. The effect may be due to certain polyphenols in cranberries, which have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity in people with people at risk for diabetes.[2,3,4,5]
Cranberries can reduce inflammation
These polyphenols can also help reduce inflammation by blocking inflammatory pathways throughout the body. A large study on more than 10,000 adults found cranberry juice drinkers have lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, which is linked with heart disease. In addition, researchers have noted reduced disease activity markers in women with rheumatoid arthritis, after drinking low-calorie cranberry juice.
Cranberries really can prevent a UTI
Yes, there is truth behind this folk remedy. One of the most studied groups of compounds in cranberries are the proanthocyanidin compounds (PACs). They prevent harmful bacteria like E. coli from adhering to the lining of the bladder wall, so eating more cranberries may reduce the risk of a urinary tract infection. Cranberry consumption seems to work best for people who are at risk for recurrent urinary tract infections.[8,9]
Cranberries can promote a healthier gut
All plant foods help to nourish your gut-microbiome, but eating more cranberries might make your healthy bacteria even happier because they contain prebiotic fiber – an essential source of fuel for probiotics. Adding cranberry (in the form of powdered extract) to a typical American, meat-based diet helps increase the production of short-chain fatty acids, which promote a healthier gut. Cranberries also help to minimize some of the adverse effects of an animal-based diet that contribute to colon cancer risk.
How to make healthy cranberry sauce
Whether you prefer your sauce cooked or raw, the good news is the polyphenol compounds are heat stable, so either way, you'll get all of their health benefits.
One important thing to remember about cranberries is that they're only harvested in the US in the fall, so stock up when you see them. Cranberries freeze beautifully and will last until next year's crop is harvested. Just keep them in their original bag, and don't wash them. They won't have the same firmness when they're thawed, but your cranberry sauce won't know the difference.
Cranberries are naturally very low in sugar, which makes them an ideal choice for lower-carb diets. Unfortunately, they're also very tart, but that doesn't mean you have to load up on sugar. Try substituting fruit juice for the water when you cook them, or add some honey, maple syrup, or a non-nutritive sweetener like erythritol (Swerve® or Lakanto®).
Healthy Cranberry Sauce Recipes
To make a healthy cooked cranberry sauce:
- Combine 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries with 2/3 cup water or fruit juice.
- Bring the cranberries to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low.
- Simmer for about 10 minutes or until they pop (they'll release their pectin and start to thicken).
- Add sweetener to taste.
- As the sauce cools, it will thicken up.
If you want a flavored sauce, while it's cooking, stir a teaspoon of almond, orange, or vanilla extract. You can also add fresh or dried herbs for a savory sauce. Try a few sprigs of thyme, rosemary, or some cumin and lime zest for a southwest flavor.
To make a healthy raw cranberry relish:
Cranberry relish isn't cooked, and it's packed with flavor and a fresh, crunchy texture. If you've never tried it, pull out the food processor and give it a whirl.
- Combine 1 cup of raw or frozen cranberries and about 1 cup of any fruit in a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Delicious choices include 1 whole, unpeeled orange, 1 cored apple or pear, or a cup of mixed berries.
- Add 1/3 cup of unsalted nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans)
- Pulse to chop the relish to the desired consistency.
- Add sweetener to taste.
Got leftovers? Here's how to use them
Forget the leftover Tofurky. It's way too dry. Leftover cranberry sauce (or relish) is where it's at! And there's a little secret to make it even healthier for you – stir a gel pack of your favorite Healthycell multivitamin.
If you're a plant-based eater, use Vegan Essentials for the ultimate vegan cranberry sauce, or for a broad spectrum of nutrients add Bioactive Multi into a few tablespoons of your leftover cranberry sauce.
The delicious mango-peach flavor of Vegan Essentials or the mixed-berry flavor of Bioactive Multi are a perfect complement to cranberries, and the nutrients in Vegan Essentials and Bioactive Multi enhance those found in cranberries. Here's how to use them:
- Make mango-peach-cranberry salsa: add one Healthycell Vegan Essentials gel pack (or Bioactive Multi), a teaspoon of minced jalapeno, and a handful of chopped cilantro. Serve it with chips.
- Mix a Healthycell gel pack of Vegan Essentials or Bioactive Multi with ¼ cup cold cranberry sauce or relish and stir it into overnight oats, or cooked oats, after cooking. No sweetener or additional fruit needed.
- Use a few tablespoons of leftover cranberry sauce and a gel pack of Vegan Essentials or Bioactive Multi as a smoothie base. Add any milk and a handful of nuts or seeds for some protein and healthy fats, and blend.
- Make cranberry-orange-mango vinaigrette salad dressing to flavor greens and a winter citrus salad. Combine 2 tablespoons of leftover cranberry sauce, a gel pack of Vegan Essentials (or Bioactive Multi), and ¼ cup each olive oil and balsamic or apple cider vinegar. Shake or blend.
When using Healthycell Vegan Essentials or Bioactive Multi with cranberry sauce (or any food), make sure you add it after cooking as it's not heat stable.
Each Vegan Essentials gel pack provides 30+ vitamins, minerals and other nutrients essential for plant-based diets.
Each Bioactive Multi gel pack provides a broad spectrum of essential vitamins, minerals, and other vital nutrients.
The MICROGELTM technology ensures maximum absorption of ingredients.
Both MICROGEL supplements support your brain, muscles, strong bones, shiny hair, vibrant skin, healthy nails, immunity, and energy levels – something we could all use more of this during the holiday season, and all year long.
To your health,
Anne Danahy MS RDN