The Chippewas called it the bitter berry and found many uses for the tart fruit. Along with other New England Indian tribes, they sweetened cranberries with maple sugar or ground them with meat or fish to make a dish called pemmican.
Today, Americans think of cranberries at Thanksgiving, when they prepare traditional jellied sauces to serve with turkey or at Christmas, when they string the berries to make festive tree decorations. But the tangy red fruit is making a comeback as more than just a holiday food.
"We are seeing a lot more use of cranberries year round in pies, breads and muffins," said Elaine McLaughlin, director of nutritional affairs at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, based in Alexandria. "They have tremendous potential as more than just a condiment."
Part of the success in making consumers more aware of the fruit's versatility is due to marketing efforts by
Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., the Massachusetts-based growers' cooperative, which expects to report sales of almost $1 billion next year. The company sells whole cranberries, sauces, jellies and a variety of fruit drinks.
Next year, Ocean Spray plans to introduce Craisins, dried cranberries sweetened with sugar, which resemble raisins.
The berry -- best known for its brilliant color and ability to stay fresh for months -- is very low in sodium and fat and is a moderate source of vitamin C. One cup of chopped cranberries -- about 110 grams -- has 54 calories, 15 milligrams of vitamin C and trace amounts of fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ocean Spray adds ascorbic acid to its "cocktail" drink -- a combination of straight cranberry juice, water and corn syrup -- to increase the vitamin C content.
What makes a cranberry so tart -- its high acid content -- has prompted people to think that drinking the juice will help cure bladder infections. The idea is the acid in the berry will increase the acidity in urine to prevent bacteria growth.
But the method does not work, according to urologists. "You would have to drink gallons of cranberry juice -- more than you want to drink -- to change the acid level of the urine, even by a minor amount," said Michael Manyak, assistant professor of urology at George Washington University Medical Center.
In cranberry bog country -- a total of 25,000 acres in the states of Washington, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Oregon -- the fruit is grown on vines and harvested from September to November. It is native to North America, along with the blueberry and Concord grape. "Cranberries are more American than apples," said Nicholi Vorsa, an assistant professor at Rutger University's Blueberry/Cranberry Research Center.
Don't be surprised if fresh cranberries are scarce this Christmas. Because of bad weather, 30 percent less of the crop was harvested this year in Massachusetts -- the nation's largest berry producer.