Cranberries — They’re not just for Thanksgiving anymore. Dr. Amy Howell, a Rutgers expert in the health benefits of cranberries, provides insight on this popular tart berry just in time for Thanksgiving dinner – benefits that includes a reduction in our use of antibiotics.
For centuries, cranberries have had a reputation for boosting health, dating back to Native-Americans who used them to treat urinary tract infections as well as wounds and other ailments. In more recent years, the fruit has been found to have other potential health benefits.
How do cranberries defend against infection?
According to Dr. Howell, a specific compound in cranberries called proanthocyanidins (PACs) helps to prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract, so they can’t multiply and cause infection. This discovery by Dr. Howell and Nick Vorsa, which was published in 1998 in The New England Journal of Medicine, has led to further studies that suggest consuming cranberries regularly can help prevent certain bacterial infections. If infections are prevented, people will not need to take antibiotics, and this could lead to a subsequent reduction in the pace of large-scale antibiotic resistance development. Resistance has become a critical problem world-wide and is resulting in the inability of antibiotics to cure even simple bacterial infections.
“Often, urinary tract infections recur, requiring patients to take daily doses of antibiotics to keep infections at bay. Prolonged antibiotic use has resulted in bacterial resistance problems and left researchers searching for alternatives,” said Dr. Howell. “The compounds in cranberries may contribute to inhibiting the bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall without actually killing them, so they prevent infections without contributing to bacterial resistance problems. Consuming cranberry products regularly can help prevent urinary tract infections but has also been implicated in suppressing bacteria that cause stomach ulcers.”
What are the antioxidant benefits?
Dr. Howell said that since cranberries contain antioxidants, they may also help to lower oxidative stress, an imbalance that causes numerous chronic diseases, including inflammation, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
“The antioxidants in cranberries help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation and boost immunity, all of which are important not only in preventing urinary tract infections but in improving heart health. Research suggests that these cranberry compounds can reduce oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, increase HDL (good) cholesterol, increase the flexibility of arteries and reduce inflammation – all important risk factors for heart disease,” she said.
How should we consume cranberries to maximize their benefits?
With Thanksgiving nearing, many people may ask themselves whether they can best gain these health benefits through cranberry sauce — or perhaps an adult cranberry beverage. “About a half cup of sauce or dried berries, a 10-ounce glass of cranberry juice drink (sweetened or unsweetened, with at least 25 percent cranberry) or certain dried encapsulated supplements will help you obtain the beneficial effects,” Howell said. “Even a cranberry cocktail can give you a health boost as long as you add enough cranberry juice.”
Dr. Howell is an associate research scientist at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The center is a research station of Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. She works on isolating natural products from cranberries and blueberries that benefit human health. She also collaborates in clinical trials on cranberry consumption and urinary tract infection prevention and works with the USP (US Pharmacopoeia) to determine standard methods for quantification of cranberries that will allow supplement manufacturers to use the USP logo on their products.