Move over, turkey. Turns out the cranberry sauce that's long played a secondary role at Thanksgiving dinner tables is bursting with powerful antioxidants, the trendy molecules that prevent everything from cancer to heart attacks.
That's especially true if those cranberries hail from the Alaska wild, where long stretches of summer sun and brutal wind infuse the tundra fruit with superfood properties. Other berries that color the Alaska landscape are good for you too, with overall health benefits that far outpace their cultivated but still-healthy cousins in the Lower 48.
But it's the scarlet, tart-tasting cranberry -- especially the low-bush sort known formally as the lingonberry -- that truly stands out. Though scientists are just beginning to dive into its specific health benefits, Alaska's wild cranberry is crazy-healthy when it comes to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacity.
"Keep in mind, you probably won't eat tons, but even a little bit packs a good punch nutritionally," said Julie Cascio, a home economist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cooperative Extension Service.
The Michael Jordan of superfoods
Cascio helped produce an analysis of 16 wild Alaska berries that was published in August by the International Journal of Circumpolar Health. Lingonberries, au natural but straight out of the freezer, scored huge in Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC), a way of measuring the antioxidant properties that fight haywire cells in the body that lead to things like cancer.
If this were basketball, the lingonberry would be Michael Jordan. Its ORAC score was 203, destroying the high-bush cranberry that scored 174. For comparison's sake, the researchers also measured the fashionable pomegranate from the Lower 48, a current favorite of health nuts. Lingonberry's ORAC count was almost twice as high.
Other Alaska wild berries were in a different league from the cranberry. Blue huckleberry earned 111. Alaska blueberries, no slouches, posted scores in the 70s.
Forty is considered a very high ORAC count, said the study. Cultivated blueberries from the Lower 48 scored 24. That was just ahead of the laggards in Alaska, the red currant and finally, the watermelon berry.
The findings are good news for cranberry fans, and the legions of Alaskans who spend some of their late summer days hunched over the tundra scraping cranberries into buckets for storage in freezers. For eons, Alaska Natives stirred berries into animal fat to create Eskimo ice cream.
Turns out they were on to something, said Mary Ann Lila, one of the world's foremost berry experts. The ice cream, known as agutak, was as much medicine as it was dessert.
Stressful growing season helps
That's because Alaska berries endure intense growing seasons and weather that other berries don't face, creating stress that helps the plants muscle up with protective chemicals. Those chemicals help people who eat them prevent the ravages of chronic disease, she said.
"The more intense they are in plant, the better they are in the human consumer," said Lila, Food Science Director at the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University.
A study she and others published this month showed that wild Alaska cranberries and blueberries have more anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits than their commercial counterparts in the Lower 48 berries. But all the berries are good for you, Lila noted.
Topping the list, though, were Alaska cranberries, beating out blueberries and with about the double the overall value of commercial cranberries. But those Lower 48 cranberries had an important characteristic not found in Alaska's cranberries: a chemical that helps prevent urinary tract infections.
Both wild and commercial cranberries and blueberries are potent because they contain chemicals not often found together in other berries, she said. Those are anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, plant chemicals that fight a variety of illnesses.
"We're talking diabetes, cancer, cardioprotective benefits, cognitive and motor dysfunction," she said. "There are lots of functional foods out there: broccoli for cancer, soy for bone health. But nothing else rings all these bells on all these different health fronts."
Presumably, the wild Alaska berries provide more health benefits than the Lower 48 berries, given their much higher antioxidant counts, said Kriya Dunlap, an assistant professor in biochemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a researcher in the study with Lila. But more research is needed to know for sure.
Fare well in freezer, too
The study went so far as to suggest possible niche-market opportunities for the berries.
"Although wild berries in Alaska have limited accessibility, distribution, and availability and could not compete in commercial markets with cultivated berries, the enhanced accumulation of heath-beneficial wild berry constituents may represent a novel opportunity for development of Alaskan berries as a potential new niche market commodity, an American-grown specialty functional food to compete in the same market as several other exotic berry species currently in vogue."
Dunlap said she gathered the low-bush cranberries for the study, harvesting them from woodsy trails not far from her office at the university. The low-bush blueberries came from an area along the Steese Highway near Fairbanks that had opened up to sunlight after a 2004 fire.
One benefit of cranberries is that their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory survive well in the freezer, compared to other berries, she said.
The health benefits also survive processing very well. Heating them to make sauces, for example, reduces their antioxidant properties somewhat, said Cascio. More destructive is sugar, often used heavily to mask the tart taste of cranberries.
Still, it's hard to go wrong with wild Alaska cranberries and for that matter, blueberries and other wild Alaska berries. Turned into jams, sauces and juices, they still have very high antioxidant levels, she said.
Diners might be wise to double-down on the berry-fixings this Thanksgiving. Dunlap said she'll be doing that.
"Heck yeah I'm eating some of my research subjects. I'll probably be eating a traditional cranberry sauce with lingonberries and probably Alaska blueberry pie."
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com