Magazine article Psychology Today

The Smart of Tart

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Smart of Tart

Article excerpt

CRANBERRIES ARE MORE THAN SAUCY; THEY MAKE SPECIAL CLAIMS ON THE BRAIN, by Andrea Hilbert

IT WAS CALLED "the waif of the swamplands," and so little was the cranberry valued that even accidental discoveries of ways to promote growth of the evergreen shrub were not exploited for commercial purposes. But that was in 1~4O, before growers cou'id recite the names of a~o'cidants or the benefits of vitamin C or even the biological virtues of pectin. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, in the bogs of Cape Cod that are home to the tart fruit, cranberry culture took off.

Native to northern climates, and primping for harvest right about now, cranberries are botanically related to the North American blueberry and the bilberry and lingonberry of Scandinavia. They are linked nutritionally as well. All entered the 21st century as "superfoods," rich in phytochemicals and other compounds so biologically helpful they are commonly called "nutraceuticals."

"No other fruit or berry is so representative of America and all she stands for," nutritional biochemist Paul Eck enthuses, and catching sight of the bright berries that grew wild in the marshes where the Pilgrims landed just south of Cape Cod in late fall of 1620 "undoubtedly heartened" the country's first immigrants. The cranberry was not only the sole edible fruit available at that time of year; its payload of vitamin C relieved their debilitating symptoms of scurvy, a common affliction of ocean voyagers.

The 16-month growth cycle of the cranberry ends between September and November, which made it available for the very first Thanksgiving feast. The Pilgrims were introduced to the fruit by Native Americans, who ate the bitter berries raw or added maple sugar to make a sweetened sauce. Cranberries were also an essential ingredient of pemmican, a high-energy mix of deer fat and dried meat or fish that was mashed into a pulp, formed into cakes, and baked in the sun; the acidic berries not only acted as a preservative but brought nutritional balance to the mix. Green berries were pounded into a poultice for wounds and used to control fever.

But it is the deeply hued berries that are a potent source of flavonoids, a family of pigment-conferring compounds in plants that are increasingly thought to be responsible for many of the benefits associated with fruit- and vegetable-rich diets.

Although Mediterranean cuisine is much heralded for its medicinal value, it's not the only cuisine that serves up a large helpingofhealth.Traditional Scandinavian offerings do, too, and a notable part of the benefit comes from colorful berries. A group of Nordic researchers recently studied 70 people who followed a healthy diet rich in fish, game, and bilberries. As reported in theJournal of Internal Medicine, subjects consuming such foods showed an improved ratio of good to bad cholesterol and reduced inflammation, a process now thought to underlie many chronic conditions, including cognitive decline and heart disease.

Like blueberries, bilberries, and lingonberries, cranberries are loaded with anthocyanins, blue-red pigments that are potent antioxidants as well as powerful anti-inflammatory agents. Both properties combine to make anthocyanins important in halting age-related changes in memory and motor function. Countering inflammation maintains brain blood flow, energizing mental functions and mood while preventing hardening of the arteries. …

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