The Thanksgiving side dish that’s better than a multivitamin

You already know about the benefits of consuming berries to reduce your risk of dementia, cancer, and other chronic diseases. And now, a huge new study shows that eating more berries can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes by as much as 18%.

Of course, fresh berries are hard to come by this time of year. But you can get the same benefits by eating cranberries. This scarlet red fruit, which is a member of the same family as blueberries, is well known for its ability to treat urinary tract infections. But it can do much more than that.

In fact, cranberries are a like potent nutritional “pill”—high in vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K, as well as the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are essential for eye health. Cranberries are also rich in copper (good for red blood cells and your immune and nervous systems), manganese (important for building bones and connective tissue), and magnesium (the do-it-all, brain- and heart-healthy mineral I wrote about in last month’s Insiders’ Cures).

I’ll tell you more about cranberries (including my favorite holiday recipe) in a moment. But first, let’s look more closely at the link between berries and diabetes prevention.

Just a handful of berries a day can reduce your diabetes risk by 18%

The new study is said to be the first to evaluate how consuming anthocyanins in berries affects the risk of type 2 diabetes.[1]

Anthocyanins are plant pigments that give cranberries (and other berries and fruits) their deep scarlet, purple, and blue colors. They’re similar to carotenoids, which give fruits and vegetables yellow-orange colors.

In fact, when nutritional scientists recommend you “eat a rainbow” of foods for your health, they are talking about getting more of these biologically active and beneficial plant constituents. And science is showing more health benefits all the time.

For the berry study, researchers assessed data from three studies evaluating anthocyanin intake and diabetes incidence. They also looked at five studies comparing berry intake and diabetes risk. Together, the eight studies involved almost 400,000 people—about 26,000 of whom had diabetes.

The researchers found that higher anthocyanin intake was associated with a 15% reduction in diabetes risk, and higher berry consumption led to an 18% risk reduction.

And the more berries the study participants ate, the lower their risk. For every 7.5 mg per day of anthocyanin intake, or 17 grams of berries, there was a 5% reduced risk of diabetes. That’s less than one handful of berries day.

The unique growing method that boosts cranberries’ health benefits

As I mentioned earlier, this study applies to cranberries as well. But what makes this tiny, tart fruit so healthy?

Well, a lot of it has to do with how cranberries are cultivated.

Cranberries grow wild on low bushes in northern North America (like blueberries), as well as in northern Asia and Europe. They became known to European settlers in early New England as a Native American food.

But today, cranberries are cultivated primarily in New England in colorful “cranberry bogs.” The water not only makes cranberries easier to harvest because they’re floating, but it also makes a better berry. That’s because the potency of anthocyanins is directly related to their exposure to sunlight. And floating on top of a bog allows every berry to bathe in the sun (just like when you go to the beach).

Try my “DIY” cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving

You can buy “canned” cranberries with added sugar, which preserves them and also turns them into a solid, jiggling mass. But it’s better to buy fresh or fresh-frozen cranberries and make your own sauce—rather than unappetizing cranberry “slices” retaining the shape and contours of a tin can.

Here’s what I do almost every Thanksgiving (and often at Christmas, depending on the main course).

Bring a couple cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. Then dump in fresh or frozen cranberries (the temperature difference will make them burst, releasing their juices). Add “pumpkin spices”—allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg—to taste, plus some fresh, quartered orange slices for zest. Boil the mixture uncovered for a few minutes until it thickens, then simmer until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Finally, take the saucepan off the burner and let the mixture cool.

The resulting sauce makes a healthy and tasty addition to a holiday meal, or any meal. You can also serve it as a healthy topping over a dessert.


[1] “Associations of dietary intakes of anthocyanins and berry fruits with risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Aug 17.