11/27/2013 08:13 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

A Brief Medical History Of The Cranberry

ITALY - SEPTEMBER 16:  Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, cowberry, V. vitis idaea and bog bilberry, V. uliginosum. Handcolored
ITALY - SEPTEMBER 16: Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, cowberry, V. vitis idaea and bog bilberry, V. uliginosum. Handcolored copperplate engraving of a botanical illustration by J. Schaly from G. T. Wilhelm's Unterhaltungen aus der Naturgeschichte' (Encyclopedia of Natural History) Vienna 1816. Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm (1758-1811) was a Bavarian clergyman and naturalist in Augsburg where the first edition was published.' (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

Is there a less alluring fruit than this impenetrably tart berry? From its inelegant bog origins to its dowdy association with Pilgrims, there's nothing sexy about cranberries. But that's okay, because the jewel-colored berry is actually a health powerhouse -- even early colonists knew it.

We now consume about 400 million pounds of cranberries a year in the form of juice, sauce, dried fruit and other popular dishes. And about 20 percent of cranberry consumption happens during the week of Thanksgiving. But this isn't the first era in which cranberries have been a popular food -- and a celebratory one.

When settlers first arrived in the New World, they ate cranberries, cultivated by Native American tribes along the coast of New England in an effort to ward off scurvy, an obsolete condition caused by vitamin C deficiency. Although the cranberries worked by providing a big dose of vitamin C, as NPR reported, medical wisdom at the time concluded that scurvy was caused by an excess of salt in the body and that the sour taste of the berries "pulled" salt from the body.

Native Americans, meanwhile, actually used a poultice made from cranberries to help heal wounds and tumors, according to the 1999 Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. That was a smart strategy, as cranberries have a compound that prevents common bacteria like E. coli and Staph from attaching to the walls of tissue cells. This same property is one of the reasons that many women now drink unsweetened cranberry juice or take cranberry extract pills to ward off urinary tract and bladder infections, which are most commonly caused by E. coli. (The research on cranberry's usefulness for UTIs is complicated, but many studies show some benefit.) Indigenous tribes also used cranberry for bladder ailments -- and for kidney disease, according to research presented at New York University.

But as our understanding of medicine has gotten more sophisticated, so too has our knowledge of cranberries. These days, many people rely on cranberry's antioxidant power, thanks to a high level of proanthocyanidins -- a class of polyphenols that give the berry its red color and are also associated with helping to prevent just about every chronic disease we can think of. In fact, cranberry has one of the most powerful antioxidant loads of any food, with 1750 ORAC units per 100 grams.

“Hundreds of studies show that the bioactive compounds found in cranberries improve health,” lead author Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory and professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said in a statement released by the Cranberry Institute. “For example, the polyphenols found in cranberries have been shown to promote a healthy urinary tract and exert protective benefits for cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.”

Cranberries have been shown to protect heart health by reducing atherosclerosis -- or plaque buildup in the arterial walls. Cranberry, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found, may be able to help reduce build-up of arterial plaque thanks to the fruit's ability to reduce the production of a type of arterial wall cell that releases osteocalcin, a compound that is associated with hardening of the arteries.

And while most of this research relates to compounds found in cranberries, not your Aunt Ethel's famous bourbon-cranberry sauce, the berry's storied history as both folk and modern medicine should make you feel better about taking a second helping.