Fight Inflammation and Improve Gut Health With This Superfood
By Casey Seiden MS, RD, CDN CDE
In this article:
Cranberries have impressive health benefits for keeping your body, and especially your gut, in tip top shape!
Tiny but mighty, cranberries are true superfoods that come in a variety of easy-to-consume forms: as a whole, fresh fruit, dried, juiced, and as cranberry pills and powders. This tart and tangy berry historically gained attention for its impact on urinary tract health, but in recent years, cranberries are being studied for their benefits a little farther up the gastrointestinal system, in the stomach and large intestine. Two of the most studied and talked about, benefits of cranberries are their prebiotic quality and polyphenol levels, both of which can have positive effects on the gut microbiome. Before talking about the gut health benefits of cranberries, let’s get to know this fruit a little bit better.
Cranberries are a unique food item that represent one of only three commonly cultivated fruits in North America. They are at their peak of ripeness throughout September and December, and can also be easily found frozen, as dried cranberries snacks, as a canned jelly, tart unsweetened cranberry juice, cranberry juice cocktail, and even dried in loose powder form or capsules.
Nutritionally, one cup of raw, chopped cranberries provides 50 calories, mostly from carbohydrates, and about five grams of fiber. If dried, ½ cup of these berries is equivalent to one fruit serving. This superfood contains high levels of vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that is useful for cold prevention and treatment, as well as manganese, vitamin E, vitamin K and copper.
When choosing how to incorporate cranberries into your diet, pay attention to how it’s packaged. Raw cranberries are quite tart and rarely eaten alone - they are usually processed into a sauce or sipped as a beverage. Many of these preparations utilize added sugar to sweeten things up, but it’s important to be mindful of your overall added sugar intake throughout the day. High, frequent consumption of added sugars can provoke inflammation in the gut and throughout the body, which is exactly what we’re hoping to decrease by consuming this superfood in the first place!
Cranberries have been having a heyday in the research world and are being studied for their potential implications in decreasing inflammation in the digestive system and positively impacting the microbiome. Let’s take a closer look at this superfood and its role in gut health.
If you’re clued into gut health, you’ve probably heard about probiotics, which are the “good” microbes that reside in our intestinal tract and produce beneficial compounds with far-reaching positive effects. Perhaps what you’ve heard less about, though it’s just as important, are prebiotics. Prebiotics are fibers found in cranberries - as well as other foods like apples, artichokes and leeks - that pass through the digestive system unchanged and get fermented by the good bacteria in the colon. Essentially, they are the food that nourishes good gut bugs.
Cranberries contain a special type of prebiotic fiber - a carbohydrate called xyloglucan - that good bacteria are particularly adept at using as an energy source. This can lead to the production of many beneficial compounds that protect against systemic inflammation. In fact, a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst studied this exact effect and found that the indigestible cell walls of cranberries allowed gut bacteria to produce more bifidobacteria and formic acid, and less lactic acid. You may recognize bifidobacteria as a subspecies found in fermented foods that can help with irritable bowel syndrome, stomach infection and post-antibiotic diarrhea. This area of research is quite new, but grabbing some cranberry snack bars wouldn’t be a bad idea!
Fiber is only found naturally in plant-based foods, so if you typically eat a diet high in animal products and processed sugar, your body and gut are getting less of a boost. Still, a small 2018 study found that giving a cranberry powder supplement to volunteers who ate a diet high in saturated fat and added sugar for two weeks reduced the presence of cancer-causing bile acids and improved production of antioxidant compounds.
Another study published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology suggests that a serving of sweetened dried cranberries with lunch for two weeks is enough to completely shift the balance of gut bacteria. They found changes in the Firmicutes/Bacteroidetes ratio (bacteria that may produce more inflammation vs. bacteria that produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids), increases in commensal (friendly) bacteria, and decreases of bacteria associated with negative health effects. The results definitely warrant more investigation, but the research is pretty encouraging.
While there needs to be more studies on cranberries’ prebiotic benefit, the anti-inflammatory benefits are promising! Plus, it really can’t hurt to supplement your diet by adding cranberry juice or powder to a smoothie or including fresh cranberries in a sweet relish or chutney. Snacking on trail mix filled with dried cranberries would also be a tasty way to boost gut health.
Perhaps more talked about than fiber is cranberries’ high concentration of polyphenols, specifically the flavonoid proanthocyanidins (PACs). You may have heard that blueberries rule when it comes to PACs, but cranberries actually contain higher levels of the A-type of PACs. This subspecies of proanthocyanidins is found to have powerful anti-adhesion properties that strengthen intestinal cell linkages and prevent damage from invading bacteria.
Since our guts are often the first line of defense against pathogens that could cause infection and inflammation, we want our intestinal cell bonds to be strong and able to defend against harmful bacteria. The great news is that a lot of recent research has found that the antioxidant properties of cranberries can actually help protect the stomach against such infections. Cranberries’ PACs can help prevent E. coli and H. Pylori, two harmful pathogens, from sticking to intestinal cells.
In a 2018 study, it was observed that as the concentration of PACs increased, the tight bonds that hold together the intestinal cell walls also increased. This research suggested that cranberries’ PACs inhibit the invasion of pathogenic E. Coli. which can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, serious dehydration and kidney damage.
In women, the addition of cranberry juice to a stomach ulcer fighting regimen of antibiotics and proton pump inhibitors was shown to speed up the eradication of H. pylori in one study. These results were interestingly not observed in men, so, ladies, find yourself some tart cranberry juice and drink up!
Cranberry research is promising and there are a variety of ways to include this superfood into your routine. Cranberry supplements, which are often made of cranberry extract or powder, are a convenient way to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits, but whole foods can be more delicious and often just as easy to incorporate! To include more of this superfood, try the following recipe.
- 2 1/3 cups rolled oats
- 2 Tbs. chia seeds
- 2 Tbs. flax seeds
- 2/3 cup creamy almond butter
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 tsp. orange zest
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 3 Tbs. coconut oil
- Add all of the ingredients to a large food processor. Blend on high for about 30 seconds until the oats are chopped well and the mixture starts to come together.
- Using clean hands, roll the mixture into golf-ball-sized bites. This recipe will make approximately 24 bites.
- Store the bites in an airtight sealed container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or freeze in a freezer-safe bag for up to 2 months.
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- Bekiares, Nell, et al. “Effect of Sweetened Dried Cranberry Consumption on Urinary Proteome and Fecal Microbiome in Healthy Human Subjects.” OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, vol. 22, no. 2, 2018, pp. 145–153., doi:10.1089/omi.2016.0167.
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