With the holidays approaching, many festive foods find their way onto our plates--and our waistlines. Fortunately, there's one such winter favorite that adds a seasonal sparkle without packing unwanted calories: the cranberry. With its merry red hue and wealth of essential vitamins and antioxidants, the cranberry is a tart little gem that will sweeten your holiday fare.

Cranberries may be small in size, but they pack a big nutritional punch. In addition to being an excellent source of vitamins A and C, cranberries are also rich in phytonutrients, shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. Furthermore, cranberries contain anti-bacterial properties known to fight recurring urinary tract infections as well as stomach ulcers. While cranberries can be found in many forms ranging from juice to jellied sauce, nutrients in cranberries work synergistically and studies have shown that the most beneficial way to eat the fruit is in its whole form.

It's unlikely you'll be able to hand-pick each cranberry, as they usually come in 12 oz. bags. When selecting a bag, look for one with brightly colored, firm berries. When you get them home, sift through and remove any that are soft, discolored, withered, or shriveled.

Fresh cranberries will keep for up to two months if wrapped in tight plastic and kept refrigerated. For longer storage, put a bag of cranberries in the freezer and they'll stay fresh for up to a year. Don't wash your berries before storing them, as the excess moisture will cause spoilage.

While raw cranberries may be great for your health, they can be extremely tart and a little rough on the palate. To derive the benefits of the whole berry without the unpleasant taste, try using them in a relish, compote, or cobbler. You can also cut the berries in half, soak them in simple syrup, strain them, and add them to a salad for a sweet kick. When preparing cranberries for relish, chutney, or compote, it's easiest to put whole berries in a food processor and chop using the 'pulse' setting. When cooking cranberries, avoid removing them from the heat as soon as they pop, or they can become mushy and bitter.

Fun Facts

  • There's a small pocket of air inside the cranberry which causes it to bounce and float in water.
  • Cranberries were first harvested in Massachusetts in 1816.
  • Only about 5% of cranberries are sold whole; the other 95 percent are processed into juice, sauce, and sweetened and dried.
  • Cranberries are nearly 90 percent water.
  • Native Americans used cranberries for medicine and red dye as early as 1550.
  • It's a common misconception that cranberries are grown in water. They're actually grown on dry beds that are flooded at harvest time so that the berries rise to the surface of the water and are easier to collect.