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Cranberries Nutrition Facts and
Health Benefits

Ask a member of any living generation from your children to Grandma what is the most popular berry juice for health? You're likely to be told that cranberry juice is the answer.

Particularly in the prevention of urinary tract infections, cranberries have proven benefits as an anti-adhesion agent. This means that there are elements in cranberries that can inhibit or stop bacterial adhesion to the walls of the urinary tract. No other berry has undergone as much scientific study applied to humans than the cranberry.

It can also be stated that no other berry has been commercialized as aggressively as the cranberry for its juice. Ocean Spray, a global company, was founded in 1930, and is a cooperative of 800 cranberry growers in the United States. It manages around 60% of the world's crop of cranberries. The company does not disclose sales volumes, but has seen double-digit growth annually since 2001. Ocean Spray recently announced that it is doubling production capacity at its largest plant in Middleboro, Massachusetts to meet increasing demand from the health and functional foods sector.

What species of cranberries exist?

The cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon L.) is a cousin of the blueberry and huckleberry in the Vaccinium genus. Having evergreen leaves, the cranberry grows in acidic bogs throughout the US and Canada, particularly in New England, Washington, Oregon, northern California and south-western British Columbia. The berry is initially white but turns to its characteristic scarlet color in July-August.

What qualities of cranberries appeal to consumers?

Since the early 1980s, cranberry juice has been known to have anti-bacterial properties that affect urinary tract health and likely much more. No other juice is known to have the same anti-bacterial properties.

The berry itself has traditional uses in jams and jellies at seasonal dinners, and is increasingly finding markets as dried fruit "craisins." The berry has slightly acidic and sour flavors, yet it has a firm pleasing flesh similar to a grape raisin in texture. Recent dental research has shown that such dried berry fruit has favorable anti-decay benefits, probably attributable to the antioxidants in cranberries and grapes.

By far the cranberry's most popular application is its juice, a product dominated in the market by Ocean Spray's famous and popular juices, cocktails, and blends.

Due to the cranberry's health properties that specify the urinary tract as a site of benefit, Ocean Spray has teamed with the US National Kidney Foundation to promote cranberry juice for kidney health. Furthermore, in 2005, France permitted Ocean Spray to make a health claim on its label describing the benefits of cranberry juice against recurrent cystitis in adult women.

Similar to other Vaccinium berries, cranberries are scientifically recognizable as potent sources of antioxidant phytochemicals.

What are oxidants and antioxidants?

Moment by moment throughout the cells of our bodies, free radicals (i.e., oxidants or radical oxygen species) are continuously being generated by normal metabolism. Exposure to toxins in the environment, or irradiation, increases free radical production. Free radicals are unstable atoms having potential to damage cells and alter genes if not quickly neutralized.

Our bodies defend against oxidation through enzymes called dismutases, catalases, reductases and peroxidases. Also, our diet provides a host of chemicals serving antioxidant roles. These chemicals include: vitamins A, C and E; minerals like selenium, manganese and zinc; and pigments from the plant foods we eat.

In cranberries, research has especially identified the phenolic class of proanthocyanidins, a group of tannins, with strong antioxidant properties.

What are other pigments present in cranberries?

The rich red color of cranberries comes from numerous chemicals of the phenolic super-family. A major subgroup of phenolics is the flavonoids that are densely populated in cranberries. One flavonoid class in particular the anthocyanins accounts for most of the red pigmentation of cranberries. In addition to anthocyanins, flavonols, ellagic acid, rosmarinic acid, hippuric acid, quercetin, chlorogenic acid, peonidin 3-galactoside, cyanidin 3-galactoside, and cyanidin 3-galactoside are also present in cranberries.

Is there a way to measure antioxidant quality of a plant food and how well do cranberries perform?

Yes, a test called ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) is performed on a food sample in a test tube. Then, the strength of antioxidant is measured by how well it neutralizes free radicals.

Cranberries and blueberries have essentially the same ORAC levels.

Plants with pale skins and white pulps like pears and some apples have low ORAC whereas dark fruit like black raspberries, blueberries and cranberries have relatively high ORAC.

What does a high ORAC from cranberries mean for health protection?

The answer to this question requires actual clinical research in humans (being performed but still preliminary) but the scientific evidence points to widespread protection against numerous diseases by having a diet rich in high-ORAC foods like cranberries.

Although juice products like those from Ocean Spray have demonstrated health effects (e.g., anti-bacterial properties mentioned above and shown to be effective against urinary tract infections), the phenolic content of dried cranberries is likely to be higher and therefore have more antioxidant benefit. Juicing or any processing after picking berries tends to reduce their phytochemical quality and content, including antioxidants.

What are some diseases that evolve from free radicals and what can the consumer do to counter oxidative stress?

Growing scientific evidence shows that nearly every disease involves free radicals to some extent. Cancer, heart and vascular disease, diabetes, inflammation and neurological disorders all have strong components of oxidative stress. Premature aging and diseases of the elderly such as macular degeneration are thought to result from oxidative damage to cells as well.

Cranberries have revealed other anti-disease effects in laboratory research, beyond the anti-adhesion properties already mentioned, including animal or in vitro models of several cancers (breast, skin, colon, prostate, lung, brain, oral), heart disease and vascular plaques.

The message to consumers is simple: eat color-rich plant foods to gain the potential health benefits of antioxidant pigments.

About The Author:
Dr. Paul Gross is a scientist and expert on cardiovascular and brain physiology. A published researcher, Gross recently completed a book on the Chinese wolfberry and has begun another on antioxidant berries. Gross is founder of Berry Health Inc, a developer of nutritional, berry-based supplements. For more information, visit http://www.berrywiseonline.com.

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