Cranberries – Beyond Thanksgiving

iStock photo

iStock photo

If your cranberry intake simply consists of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving and a sporadic splash of cranberry juice in a Cosmopolitan, it may be time for a  cranberry rethink.  Current scientific research is pointing to some stellar attributes of this member of the berry family including a potential weapon in fighting off bacteria which may cause urinary tract infections and stomach ulcers as well as offering up some heart health perks.

While folklore has long touted the benefits of drinking cranberry juice as a way to avoid urinary tract infections (UTIs), studies are now backing up the sage advice provided by generations of women. But there’s much more to the berry than even our mothers knew.

Some of the health benefits include protection against other microbes which may cause adverse health effects such as ulcers and dental caries as well as the potential defense against other diseases that may be provided by the antioxidant effects of cranberries.

Cranberry juice was first thought to be  effective  in fighting off urinary tract infections because of its acidity. Over two decades ago, though,  scientists at   Youngstown State University, showed that there was something  else at work. They demonstrated that the effect was due to the cranberry’s ability to inhibit bacteria from adhering to the walls of the urinary tract.

The researchers found that  cranberry juice cocktail significantly inhibited the E. coli bacteria, which cause 80 to 90 percent of UTIs, from adhering to urinary tract cells.  Further investigations over the years finally led to researchers from  Rutgers University isolating  the active components in cranberries  called proanthocyanidins that were  responsible for maintaining urinary tract health.

But these compounds are not found in cranberries alone so scientists pitted
other proanthocyanidin-containing foods against the age-old favourite in human subjects. Grape and apple juices, green tea and chocolate, all sources of the compound,  were all tested and not found to possess this anti-adhesion activity. Further testing showed that cranberry proanthocyanidins contained a unique structural feature that may account for the  microbial anti-adhesion property.

While these types of infections may not seem like a big deal, they, in fact,  affect 11 million women a year, with 25 % having recurrent infections. Simply put, they are a health care burden. In the U.S., for example,  they account for a staggering 11 million doctor’s office visits annually. It’s also estimated that, in the U.S., there is 25 % resistance to antibiotics and 100 % in some Third World countries. In other words, these infections are contributing to the problem  of antibiotic resistance now being experienced around the world.

It also appears that in the elderly population, UTIs can be particularly debilitating. A UTI in an older woman can present itself in appearance in a similar fashion as a stroke might – difficulties in walking, talking and even cognitive function.
Researchers have also assessed various cranberry products and determined what amounts are needed to maintain the anti-adhesion effects over time.    Scientists at Rutgers University  have found that to help maintain a healthy urinary tract,  consuming cranberries twice a day in small doses rather than one large serving daily is more beneficial. Their effects may begin within two hours of consumption but only last for up  about 10 hours, making a morning and night serving the most effective way to consume the berry for the anti-adhesion action.

But it’s not just a cranberry beverage that does the trick. A  total daily serving of 8 to 10  ounces of cranberry cocktail, 1 1/2 ounces of dried cranberries or even 1/2 cup cranberry sauce all provide the same dose of proanthocyanidins.  And considering that regular consumption of cranberry products has been shown to decrease the incidence of recurrent infections by 40 %, it seems like wise choice for many women.

Have you tried cranberries as a remedy? Please share in the comment section below.


Up next:  More cranberry perks

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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  1. Five top reasons for eating cranberries – other than turkey’s sidekick | Enlightened Eater - November 21, 2013

    […] more to  research on cranberries than just their potential impact on urinary tract infections (UTIs) – not that these aren’t  valuable effects. But these little berries offer a range of weaponry […]

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