Cranberries. The Original Superfood?

One of nature’s original curative foods, the Cranberry continues to grow in popularity.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By George Steinmetz

Cranberries have always been a superfood. Native tribes have harvested the fruit for at least 12,000 years, often combining dried cranberries with meat to form pemmican—an easily transportable and high-protein food that was an early equivalent to the modern energy bar. Medicine men used cranberries to treat fever, swelling and seasickness; later, American seafarers would consume the berries to fight scurvy.

Cultivation and Labor

But for most of that history, cranberries could only be harvested wild. Commercial cultivation did not begin until 1816, when a Revolutionary War veteran, Captain Henry Hall, noted that the sand blowing atop cranberry bogs stimulated the berries’ growth.

Hall began to transplant cranberry vines and spread sand on top, a technique that grew across Massachusetts, and, later, to other cranberry-growing regions. By 1888, when the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association was formed, cranberries had already been planted in Wisconsin, though it would not become the country’s main producer until the mid-twentieth century.

The labor involved in cranberry farming has been dramatically reduced through the years. In the 1890s, wooden scoops began to relieve pickers from the need to stoop over and pluck each berry by hand. Mechanical harvesters were first introduced in the 1920s, though they did not become widely used until the middle of the century. By some accounts, it wasn’t until the 1960s that today’s familiar wet-harvest method become standard.

Processing

But perhaps the greatest change in cranberry farming is how the crop is used. Little more than a hundred years ago, the only way to eat cranberries was fresh, which limited the market for the food to just regional usage. But in 1912, a Massachusetts lawyer-turned-farmer named Marcus Urann dreamed up the idea of canning and juicing cranberries. (Later, Urann was essential in the formation of the cooperative that would become known as Ocean Spray, still the industry leader.)

That innovation eventually launched cranberry farming anew; now 95% of cranberries are consumed in processed form. The hottest product to date is sweetened dried cranberries—or SDCs, as the industry calls them. (Ocean Spray has trademarked their version of SDCs as “Craisins,” introducing them in 1993.) Sprinkled atop a healthy salad, they are considered by many diners a delicious, modern update on the cranberry’s ancient status as a superfood.