Cranberries: Nutritional Benefits

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 05, 2024
10 min read

Cranberries are small, hard, round, red fruits known for their bitter or tart flavor. They're widely thought to be a Thanksgiving must-have but are also used in sauces, juices, muffins, and more throughout the year.

The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is one of the few commonly sold fruits that are native to North America. Native Americans first used them for food, fabric dye, and medicine. Sailors used to eat them to prevent scurvy while at sea. Today, they grow on about 40,000 acres in the U.S. each year.

Cranberry plant

Cranberries grow on vines in freshwater bogs, mostly in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. These berries grow on low-lying vines, close to the ground, and the plant has small, oval-shaped leaves. It has short, upright branches where flowers and fruits grow. These fruits ripen in September and October. Farmers flood the bogs so that the cranberries float and can be easily gathered.

A single serving consists of either 1 cup of raw berries or a quarter-cup of dried berries. Nutritionally, these servings differ because the dried berries have more sugar.

A cup of raw cranberries contains:

  • 46 calories
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates
  • 4 grams of fiber
  • 4 grams of sugar
  • 1 gram of protein
  • 2 milligrams of sodium

A quarter-cup of dried cranberries has:

  • 92 calories
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 25 grams of carbohydrates
  • 2 grams of fiber
  • 22 grams of sugar
  • 0 grams of protein
  • 2 milligrams of sodium

Carbs and fibers

Your body breaks carbohydrates down into a simple sugar called glucose, which is your body’s favorite form of fuel. Most of the natural sugars in cranberries are already in the form of glucose.

Also, about a third of the carbohydrates in cranberries (4 grams per cup) are fibers. Fibers are difficult to digest, so they help food to pass smoothly through your body. They also help keep hunger and blood sugar under control. You need about 25-35 grams of fiber each day.

Vitamins and minerals

For vitamins and minerals, one cup of raw cranberries has:

  • 25% of your daily requirement of vitamin C
  • About 9% of your daily requirement of vitamin A
  • About 6% of your daily requirement of vitamin K
  • 2% of your daily requirement of potassium
  • 1% of your daily requirement of iron and calcium
  • 8% of your daily requirement of vitamin E
  • 16% of your daily requirement of manganese
  • 7% of your daily requirement of copper
  • 8% of your daily requirement of B-complex vitamins

When cranberries are dried, they lose most of their vitamins, but they hold on to other nutrients such as potassium and calcium.

Plant compounds

Cranberries also have several cancer-fighting antioxidants. In addition to giving cranberries their crimson color, these powerful compounds may lessen free radicals that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic conditions. More studies are needed to confirm the effectiveness of certain antioxidants in cranberries.

The antioxidants in cranberries include:

  • Quercetin. The main antioxidant in cranberries is quercetin, which may be a powerful protector against cancer. More research is needed to see if it can help prevent the growth of leukemia as well as breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers. Cranberries are one of the best fruit sources of this antioxidant.
  • Myricetin. This is another antioxidant that might help prevent cancer. 
  • Ursolic acid. This compound is found in cranberry peels. It’s sometimes used in herbal medicine to treat inflammation.
  • Anthocyanins. There are a lot of these antioxidants, which include peonidin and cyanidin, in fruits such as cranberries and blueberries. Some studies show that when combined with other plant compounds, they may be able to slow tumor growth. More research is needed.
  • Proanthocyanidins. The proanthocyanidins in cranberries have a unique structure that makes it hard for some bacteria to latch onto cells. Some studies show they may be able to slow the growth of cancers.

People call cranberries a superfood for a reason. They have all kinds of health-boosting benefits.

Packed with antioxidants

Cranberries are well known for being rich in antioxidants. One study found that among 20 common fruits, cranberries have the highest level of phenols, a type of antioxidant.

The anthocyanins found in cranberries may have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. They may also:

  • Protect against liver disease
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve eyesight
  • Improve cardiovascular health

Better oral health

Cranberries can help keep your mouth healthy. They lessen the amount of acid in your mouth and stop it from sticking to your teeth. In addition, they contain chemicals that prevent bacteria from collecting on your teeth. This can help stop cavities, gum disease, tooth decay, and even oral cancer.

Cranberries for digestion

Cranberries can improve your gut health in several ways. For example, they get rid of bile acids linked to colon and gastrointestinal cancers. If you eat a lot of meat, dairy, and sugar, these little fruits can help put good bacteria back into your digestive system.

Also, cranberries might be able to stop a bacteria called Heliobacter pylori, which causes ulcers, from latching onto the walls of your stomach. However, more research is needed to be sure.

Cranberries for urinary tract infections (UTIs)

Although cranberries won't cure a urinary tract infection (UTI) after it starts, studies show they can help preventUTIs, especially in people who get them often. That’s because the proanthocyanidins in cranberries stop some bacteria from attaching to the walls of your bladder.

 If you get frequent UTIs, your doctor may suggest you to take them as supplements or drink cranberry juice from time to time.

If you think you have a UTI, talk to your doctor about whether you might need antibiotics.

Protection against germs

Cranberries can fight off common bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Listeria monocytogenes. Some research suggests that they could even fight viruses, but more studies are needed.

Reduced inflammation

The antioxidants in cranberries are anti-inflammatory powerhouses. Keeping inflammation levels low can help prevent chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Cranberries and cancer

The great amount of antioxidants found in cranberries, such as proanthocyanidins, could help lower your chance of getting cancer. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

Cranberries have two big benefits for heart health: lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol. Some studies suggest that drinking low-calorie cranberry juice regularly can raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Cranberry benefits for skin

Cranberries are packed with vitamin C, which is an important nutrient for skin health. Some dermatologists recommend vitamin C creams to boost collagen levels, reduce inflammation, brighten dark spots, and protect from UV rays.

Most people can safely enjoy cranberries. Talk to your doctor about eating them if:

  • You take warfarin. Cranberries contain a good amount of vitamin K. This nutrient can interfere with a prescription blood thinner called warfarin. If you take warfarin, doctors say that you should eat or drink only small amounts of cranberries or their juice.
  • You get kidney stones. If you drink a lot of cranberry juice over time, you may be more likely to get kidney stones. This is because cranberries have a lot of oxalate, which can combine with calcium to form stones.
  • You are allergic to aspirin. It is common for people who have an aspirin allergy to also be allergic to cranberries.

You may need to avoid cranberries or talk to your doctor before eating them if:

  • You are pregnant. Pregnant people can safely drink moderate amounts of cranberry juice but shouldn’t take any supplements without checking with their doctor first.

  • You are nursing. If you are breastfeeding, it is generally safe to have some cranberry juice. But ask your doctor before starting any supplements, including cranberry.

  • You are taking blood thinners. Because cranberries contain vitamin K, eating them could interfere with blood thinners. If you take blood thinners, ask your doctor if you can safely eat and drink cranberries. You may still be able to enjoy them but in small amounts.

  • You have stomach problems. Eating too many cranberries can cause stomachache and diarrhea, especially in children.

There are lots of ways to add this fruit to your diet. Some varieties, such as dried cranberries, cranberry juice, and canned cranberry sauce, are available year-round.

The healthiest way to enjoy cranberries is to eat them fresh. Raw cranberries take about 16 months to fully mature and are gathered in early fall. When you’re at the grocery store, look for berries that are dark red, plump, and firm. Don’t buy any that are wrinkled or bruised. Rinse them before eating.

Fresh cranberries

Fresh, raw cranberries can add a pleasant bite and burst of color to any dish. You can eat them whole like blueberries, toss them into a salad, add them to oatmeal, or blend them into a smoothie. 

If they're too tart for you, you can chop them and add a little sugar or any other sweetener. 

You also can cook them into roasted vegetable platters, pilafs, baked goods, jams, and marinades. To cook them, heat the cranberries just enough that they pop; too much cooking can make them bitter.

Here are a few other ways to cook with cranberries:

  • Cranberry apple crisp
  • Cranberry-glazed carrots
  • Orange cranberry chicken

Because fresh cranberries are only available in the fall, you can buy extra during this season and freeze them to last the rest of the year.

Dried cranberries

To make dried cranberries, farmers gather the fruits and sort, wash, and freeze them. These steps make sure that the berries are high-quality and keep their natural antioxidants. Then, they are sliced, sweetened, and dried.

Dried cranberries are easy to store and keep for long periods. They’re fun to snack on and can brighten up many foods such as trail mix, salads, oatmeal, muffins, and more.

Sugared cranberries

This delicious dessert is easy to make for a large gathering. Simply spread raw cranberries on a baking tray, cover with sugar, and roast for an hour.

Cranberry juice

Although juicing cranberries retains their vitamin C and potassium, the process causes loss of other nutrients such as fiber, iron, and calcium. 

Many brands of cranberries have high amounts of added sugar to balance out the sour taste. If cranberry juice is sweetened with sugar or combined with other sugary juices, it is called a cranberry juice cocktail.

Studies show that drinking 3 oz. of pure juice (or about 10 oz. of juice cocktail) each day can help prevent UTIs. Talk to your doctor about whether this might be a healthy addition to your diet.

Children can drink cranberry juice, but scientists are still figuring out a safe dosage. If your child gets frequent UTIs, don’t rely on cranberry juice -- see a doctor.

Cranberry sauce

You can buy canned cranberry sauce or make it yourself. To cook it at home, boil orange juice, brown sugar, and white sugar in a saucepan. Add the cranberries, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 15 minutes. Every once in a while, stir the ingredients. Take the saucepan off the heat and let the cranberry sauce cool.

This recipe not only tastes great but also lets you control how much sugar goes into your dish. Spread some on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or even an everyday turkey sandwich.

Cranberry supplements

If you don’t like the taste of cranberry in any form, you could try taking cranberry supplements as capsules or pills. More research is needed to confirm that these supplements could prevent UTIs in women.

Do not give these supplements to children. Ask your doctor before starting a new supplement, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

You can refrigerate fresh cranberries for up to 3 months. You also can freeze them, either whole or sliced, in an airtight container. When stored this way, frozen cranberries can last up to a year.

Keep dried cranberries in a cool, dark place. They’ll stay good for about a year.

Cranberries are packed with antioxidants and have several health benefits. If possible, eat them fresh to avoid the added sugars found in dried fruits and juices. Don’t eat cranberries if you take blood thinners, get frequent kidney stones, or are allergic to aspirin.

  • Are dried cranberries good for you?

    Dried cranberries have all the same powerful vitamins and antioxidants as their raw version. However, they also have a lot of added sugar. One serving size (or recommended portion) of dried cranberries has nearly 25 grams of added sugar, which is the recommended daily limit for some people. There are some unsweetened versions, but they can be hard to find.

  • How much sugar is in cranberries?

    The amount of sugar in cranberries depends on how they're prepared. Cranberries are naturally sour, so some brands add sugar to cranberry juice and dried cranberries. This makes it taste better but impacts how healthy they are. So for example, a cup of raw cranberries has 4 grams of sugar, but a cup of dried cranberries has nearly 90 grams.

  • What is the healthiest way to eat cranberries?

    Fresh, raw cranberries are the healthiest. If they’re too sour for you, you can still enjoy sweetened versions as part of a healthy diet. Eat dried cranberries with low-sugar foods, such as plain yogurt, oatmeal, or nuts. If you prefer juice, you can sip a glass of 100% cranberry juice (not “juice cocktail”). If that’s too strong, you can try adding still or sparkling water.