Oh Cranberry!

November 03, 2015

Beginning in late October, fresh cranberries begin to appear in supermarkets. By January they are usually gone.  (Did you know you can freeze the bags of fresh cranberries for up to a year?) These little red berries are extremely tart and need a lot of sugar to make them palatable, but they are delicious when tossed into stuffing, breads, salads and chutneys. In addition to their tastiness, they are also high in Vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber and low in calories.

 Cranberries have also been attached to health claims, such as drinking cranberry juice if you are prone to urinary tract infections. But how true are these health claims? If you look on the internet, you will find lots of sites that relate cranberries to health. However, many of these sites are promulgated by cranberry manufacturers who (obviously) have a vested interest in the sales of cranberries. To answer the health question about cranberries, you need to find sources that have unbiased information and have some basis in scientific fact.  

 One credible source that you may wish to visit for information about dietary supplements and trending non-medical products or practices is The National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, https://nccih.nih.gov

Here is what they have to say about the cranberry:

  • There is some evidence, but not definitive evidence, that cranberries can help to prevent urinary tract infections by preventing bacteria from sticking to the cells along the urinary tract and in the bladder. This is the theory behind why studies have shown that women who consume a cranberry juice drink every day have a lower risk of recurring urinary tract infections.
  • These studies have not shown the cranberry to be effective as a treatment for an existing urinary tract infection.
  • There is some preliminary evidence that cranberries may reduce the ability of H. pylori bacteria to live in the stomach. H. pylori has been associated with ulcers.
  • There is some preliminary evidence that cranberries may help to reduce dental plaque.

None of this research is definitive which means some studies have shown potential promising results. However, further study is needed to conclude that these findings are in fact true. NCCAM is funding studies to look at cranberries and urinary tract health. Other government agencies are looking at other abilities of the cranberry, including a laboratory study of potential anti-aging effects.

If you are diabetic, you should keep in mind that most cranberry products use large amounts of sugar (in some form) to sweeten this tart berry. Check your nutrition labels on cranberry products, including dried cranberries. You might be surprised how much sugar they contain. There are some sugar-free juices now available.

Your health care provider may recommend cranberry juice to help prevent a urinary tract infection from reoccurring (along with other hygiene practices.) For the most part this is a safe practice to try. The use of cranberry appears to be safe, however NCCAM cautions that while cranberry juice products appear to be safe, excessive amounts could cause gastrointestinal upset or diarrhea. It also warns that cranberries should be used cautiously by people who take blood-thinning drugs (such as warfarin), medications that affect the liver or aspirin. NCCAM also urges persons who think they have a urinary tract infection to seek proper diagnosis and treatment from a health care provider. Cranberry products will not treat infection.

 Cranberry-lovers, enjoy your cranberry season. And stay tuned for more information on the potential health benefits of the cranberry. As always, buyer beware! There are not yet any bottles of miracle cures.

 For nutrition information on cranberries as well as some cooking/eating suggestions, District residents can call QVHD, 203 248-4528 or request on line, dculligan@qvhd.org